Scuffling Cubs remain a mystery

I don't know who's more clueless: Carlos Zambrano or the genius who put a Gatorade dispenser in the middle of the cramped concrete dungeon that is the Chicago Cubs' dugout.

In the past few days, the poor machine has gotten Pacquiao'd by Cubs starter Ryan Dempster and then beaten into a plastic-y pulp by the working end of Zambrano's maple bat. Any more Cubs drama, and the dispenser is going to need police protection.

"Oh, merry May," said manager Lou Piniella, who has to be counting the minutes until June arrives.

Somehow, the Cubs have become baseball's version of Hells Angels, Bill Laimbeer and Dalton in "Road House." They're jumping dugout fences and confronting umpires (the usually mild-mannered pitcher Ted Lilly). They're suggesting umps have personal vendettas (outfielder Milton Bradley). They're melting down in spectacularly stupid and selfish but entertaining ways (Zambrano ... again).

And yet, as the National League's preseason favorite Cubs sit in fourth place in the NL Central, Piniella calmly and casually predicted that his team "should be in a nice pennant race sometime in the middle of the summer and make it very interesting the whole year."

And he's right, although the Cubs can't be any more interesting than they've been during the first 45 games of the season. They're Jon and Kate of the big leagues -- compellingly dysfunctional, a train wreck of roster turnover, injuries, hitting slumps, bullpen malfunctions, conspiracy theories, suspensions and mediocrity.

"If you've got to write an article right now, you could say that we've underachieved, been a disappointment," Bradley said. "But I don't think that would be fair because we've had injuries to the front line of the pitching staff, as well as the offensive side of the ball. To stay afloat like we have been … we've been holding our own and doing all right."

That's one way of looking at it. Actually, that's the most accurate way of looking at it.

Look (I'm channeling Piniella's favorite word here), there's a difference between excuses and reality. In the Cubs' case, you can't simply dismiss the cause and effect of third baseman Aramis Ramirez's shoulder injury (Piniella said he's out until at least the first week of July), pitcher Rich Harden's back injury (no exact timetable for the return of the Human Disabled List), first baseman Derrek Lee's neck injury and flu bouts, Bradley's early season leg problems, utility men Aaron Miles' bum shoulder and Ryan Freel's hamstring (scratched from the lineup on his first day as a Cub), and pitcher Zambrano's brain cramps. And partly because of those injuries, the Cubsmobile is leaving oil puddles all over the place.

Ramirez is the Cubs' best RBI man. Harden can be overpowering. Lee has scuffled, but I'd still want him in my lineup. Miles and Freel give Piniella lineup options and depth. Zambrano gives you wins and cluster migraines.

Then there's the other half of the Cubs' equation. They've stunk it up.

You don't lose eight consecutive games, as the Cubs did from May 17 to 25 to the likes of Houston, St. Louis, San Diego and Pittsburgh, by accident. There's an odor factor involved. When they hit, the pitching didn't hold up. When they pitched, the hitting evaporated.

Even when they win, they lose. They beat the Pirates at Wrigley Field on Wednesday, but only after Zambrano detonated like C-4 after a bang-bang play at home plate went against the Cubs. His tantrum was classic Z -- useless, ridiculous and costly. His contact with plate umpire Mark Carlson resulted in a six-game suspension.

"A lot of things are happening that shouldn't be happening," Cubs radio announcer Ron Santo muttered on the air not long after Zambrano's ejection.

Zambrano is a three-act baseball play, but I trust him as far as I can throw him. Nothing ever changes with him. Meltdown … apology. Meltdown … apology. Meanwhile, he keeps knee-capping his team with his antics.

Piniella said he'll talk to Zambrano. The question is, will Zambrano listen? Doubtful.

The Cubs have crossed the quarter-mark of the regular season, and we still don't know what they are. Ask general manager Jim Hendry whether he has a feel for his team, and he says, "I have a feeling we better get better."

Hendry laughed when he said it, but he knows the Cubs are a bit of a mess. Ten days ago, he was sitting with assistant general manager Randy Bush at lunch, telling him, "Gee, we're seven over [.500] and we haven't played real well yet." Then they lost eight in a row.

"I don't think we've scratched the surface on how we can play yet," Hendry said.

They had better start scratching soon. The St. Louis Cardinals don't seem like they're going to phone it in. The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds (hello, Dusty Baker) are better than anyone thought. And the MLB-best Los Angeles Dodgers are at Wrigley Field through Sunday. So now might be a good time for the Cubs to put their rally caps on.

"I think we're close," pitcher Sean Marshall said. "I think we really are. It was a tough stretch. Hopefully it will be like the stock market, where it hits the bottom and then comes back up. I think that's where we are right now -- we're on our way back up."

Well, at least economist Marshall didn't compare the Cubs to the housing market. And he isn't alone on the Optimism Train.

"We're gonna be fine," reliever Carlos Marmol said.

"We're holding our head at about the water level," Piniella said. "What we need to do is just stabilize and improve and get better as the season progresses. I feel we're going to have a good team here. I feel that we're going to have a good season."

Tick, tock. The Cubs have fewer than 120 games to make good on the prediction. If Piniella is right, the Cubs will go long and far in the playoffs. If he's wrong, the Gatorade dispenser won't make it through June.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.