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Cubs' opening loss predictable in several ways

CHICAGO -- Before the game, Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein warned about reading too much into Opening Night.

After all, it’s just one game. But in the Cubs’ case, the 3-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday could be foreshadowing of what’s to come for a while, except in one instance: Pitcher Jon Lester is bound to be better.

“He wasn’t as sharp as he can be,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “That was obvious.”

Lester’s cutter betrayed him as he left pitches up in the zone, and the Cardinals made him pay when they needed it most, with men on base.

“Not much working,” Lester said. “A grind from the get-go. A lot of balls up in the zone. Ball was flat. Anytime I get that many fly balls I know I’m not where I need to be. Up in the zone too much tonight.”

Lester said there was no carryover from getting behind in spring training due to a dead arm, but how does he know for sure? Bottom line: He’ll be better each time out and maybe at full effectiveness in just five days.

“We’re still in a stretching him out kind of mode,” Maddon admitted.

OK, so Lester’s 4 1/3 innings giving up eight hits and three runs might be his shortest outing of the year for all we know. But the other problems the Cubs ran into were foreseeable, starting with their offense.

“We could not come through in the right moment,” Maddon said.

That’s an understatement as the Cubs became just the second team in 40 years to go 0-for-13 or worse with men in scoring position on Opening Day, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. But this is a young offense. Hitting in the clutch isn’t something that’s necessarily taught nor is it predictable from one day to the next, but over time, experience should help.

Seeing how pitchers work hitters with men on base and simply having more at-bats in those situations can only increase their chances at success. The Cubs ranked 29th in baseball last year with a .223 batting average with men in scoring position. The fix won’t happen overnight.

“It’s an industry-wide problem,” Maddon said, half joking.

The Cubs will score their runs, but in the finer moments of the game they’re still going to be a work in progress. Between the Cardinals and Cubs, we know which offense is ready for prime time. Of course, the Cubs have a young hitting prodigy in the minors who might help in this department, but he’s not here yet.

Defense also is a question mark for the Cubs. Jorge Soler botched some plays in right field, and even if that doesn't happen again, it will pop up at other positions as the Cubs currently are just average in the field. Two different catchers made throwing errors on Sunday as well.

And just as predictable -- but in a good way -- was the Cubs' bullpen. A strength in the second half last season, the relievers were lights out for the final 4 2/3 innings on Sunday. Newcomers Phil Coke and Jason Motte held up their end of the bargain, while mainstays Neil Ramirez and Pedro Strop picked up where they left off.

“The whole bullpen was outstanding tonight,” Maddon said. “Kept the game believable for us and gave us a shot to come back.”

So what’s the point of dissecting Game 1 like this? In this case, it gives a view of where the Cubs need work. They’re weaknesses on Sunday -- save Lester -- are the weaknesses they had coming into the season. It’s a reminder that they’ll need time to jell and that could mean falling behind in the division. Maddon already has stated that he’ll need April to evaluate his team.

“We’re not going to shy away from anyone,” Maddon said. “Bring them on.”

The Cardinals undoubtedly will accept that challenge. They’re ready for it. The Cubs may not quite be ready yet.

Let’s be clear, nothing that happened in Game 1 is cause for panic or overanalysis, but it served as a reminder this is a young team with a new manager. The Cubs will be finding their way for a while -- just as they were on Sunday. Round 1 goes to St. Louis but their opponent is in it for the long haul.