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Help wanted: More consistency from three key Cubs

Javier Baez drove in both Cubs runs with a two-run homer, but struck out with a man on in the ninth. Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO -- Three players: a starting pitcher, an infielder and a reliever. All need to do their part down the stretch if they want to make it a bit easier on the Chicago Cubs to return to the playoffs. All have contributed in positive -- and negative -- ways this season, including in Friday’s 4-2 loss to the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field. Sometimes they’ve been frustrating to watch but all are very talented.

Kyle Hendricks

He’s getting better as he distances himself from a disabled list stint that kept him off the mound during the latter part of the first half. He lasted seven innings on Friday -- his longest stint since May 24 -- but he continues to have problems getting locked in during the early portion of the game.

"It clicked right there in the fourth inning," Hendricks said. "I need a lot more of that."

He needs a lot more early in the game, where once again he gave up first-inning runs as a two-run shot by Daniel Murphy elevated Hendricks' first-inning ERA to 6.43. After the first inning this season, Hendricks' ERA is 2.86.

"I think his location, overall, was better even though the velocity wasn’t up," manager Joe Maddon said. "It’s going to get back to that."

Similar to Jake Arrieta, Hendricks has seen his velocity drop, but Arrieta has learned how to pitch at a lower number. Hendricks is still figuring it out. Murphy hit a 71.4-mph curveball for his first-inning home run then hit an 85.7-mph fastball in the sixth for another long ball. Both velocity figures are down from when Hendricks has been at his best. Like Maddon, he thinks he’ll get there.

"When I do try and step on it, I do get out of my mechanics [right now]," Hendricks explained. "I tell myself, ‘Why do that?’ when I see the contact I’m getting."

As his mechanics come easier to him he thinks his velocity will go up. Just not yet.

"I can’t force it," he said.

Javier Baez

As is often the case with Baez, within the same game, there were things to cheer for -- namely his two-run home run in the seventh inning -- and ones that make you scratch your head. His three swings-and-misses in the ninth inning as the tying run were at least a better strategy than Willson Contreras attempting to bunt the day before. But those swings played right into Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle’s hands.

"The ball is going to be elevated," Maddon said of Doolittle’s strategy. "Get on top of it or don’t swing at it. It’s no secret.

"The antidote is not swing at it. But that’s hard to do sometimes."

Each of Doolittle’s three pitches were above the strike zone giving Baez little chance, but it was just two innings earlier he made starter Tanner Roark come into the strike zone after laying off an outside slider. Baez hit that one a mile.

"I’ve been reading the situation of the game and the way they’re pitching to me," Baez said. "They threw me a lot of sliders when we went to Washington. I’m trying to make them throw the ball over the plate. He threw a slider over the plate and I got to hit it pretty good."

What about the ninth inning, with the game on the line?

"Obviously I was trying to tie the game," Baez continued. "My approach wasn’t there and the way he was lifting his leg was kind of hard to get the timing. That’s why I was pretty big on my swing."

Maddon added: "That’s just who he is. He will chase. The other team knows that. As he matures as a hitter and stops chasing, that’s when he’s going to get really good."

At least Baez learned something about Doolittle in case these teams meet in the playoffs two months from now. In fact, the Cubs saw all three former American League relievers who the Nationals traded for. They can file away some things for October. And to be fair, Baez wasn’t the only culprit to help and hurt on Friday. Kyle Schwarber reached base twice but then struck out on three pitches late in the game as well.

For now, Baez will get to see plenty of pitches as he’s the only natural shortstop on the roster considering Addison Russell (foot) just went on the disabled list.

"Just trying to get used to shortstop again," Baez said. "That last at-bat I was trying to do too much."

Carl Edwards Jr.

The up-and-down reliever was given a chance to get right back into action after a two-walk day on Thursday and once again he struggled -- at least for a few batters. A lead-off walk in the eighth inning materialized into another run after Edwards loaded the bases with no outs.

"The lead-off walk got him again, but otherwise he came back and threw the ball extremely well," Maddon said.

That’s now 13 walks in his past 12 appearance spanning only 11 innings. It has put Maddon in a bind. Edwards has such good swing-and-miss stuff but if the ball isn’t over the plate, the opposition isn’t offering at it.

"Command issues," Maddon said. "[He] pulled away from righties. Pulled and elevated today."

These are three players who can help the Cubs to the playoffs -- each with different roles but each as important as the next. After Friday’s blast, Baez has a career-high 15 home runs, but continues to confound observers. Hendricks pitched seven innings but put his team down early once again. And Edwards made some good pitches -- but only after a lead-off walk.

Can the trio be more consistent?

The Cubs need them to be.