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Cubs' loss can't be blamed on bullpen alone

ST. LOUIS -- Most of the blame for the Chicago Cubs' 10-9 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday will fall on the bullpen. Why not? They deserve a bunch of it. But the fact of the matter is the Cubs' starting staff isn't holding up its end of the bargain, either.

"[If] your team puts up five in the first, you can't give it back," Travis Wood said. "That's all on me."

Wood gave up a grand slam to Mark Reynolds not long after hitting the leadoff man on an 0-2 count while up 5-0 in the first inning. It was only later that the bullpen imploded while trying to hold on to an 8-4 lead.

"It was not one of our better pitching nights," manager Joe Maddon said in the understatement of the day.

The Cubs are asking for trouble with two of their main relievers still on the shelf and their starting staff averaging fewer than six innings per game. This is no longer April, when starters aren't completely stretched out. And this is no longer 2014, when a Cubs starter almost never had an early lead. If the bullpen is underachieving, so is the starting staff.

"It's a great ball team over there," Wood said. "They're on a hot streak right now. They never give away at-bats, and they never quit. They've always been a tough team."

It might be a good time to point out that the Cubs lost to the best team in baseball, which just won its fourth consecutive one-run game and seventh overall. But if the Cubs want to beat -- or be -- the Cardinals someday, they'll have to learn how to close them out.

That's where we can turn our attention to the bullpen. Even the oft used Pedro Strop struggled Monday, as he gave up two hits, a walk and three runs without recording an out. It's contagious right now, and the bullpen's ERA is rising and now sits ninth in the National League.

"We have to just turn the page and get them tomorrow," lefty Zac Rosscup said.

Maybe Monday will be a good learning experience for a guy such as Rosscup. He came in with the bases loaded and no one out in the seventh. It wasn't long before the Cubs were trailing after Kolten Wong singled and Tony Cruz doubled.

"You never want to lose a game like that," Rosscup said.

The Cubs might have to lose a few before they win them. You learn more by failure than by success, it is often said.

How important is a bullpen? The three current division leaders in the National League, the Cardinals, New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, also happen to have the three bullpens with the best ERA.

And here is Maddon's problem: No reliever this side of Hector Rondon or Strop (until Monday) has given the Cubs a consistent performance. There have been flashes by Gonzalez Germen, Rosscup, Phil Coke, Jason Motte, Edwin Jackson and even Brian Schlitter, but then the next time Maddon went to one of them in a high-leverage situation, it blew up in his face.

"Starters need to [be] going deeper," Maddon said.

It's a manager's answer to a weak bullpen. But frankly, when you consider the investment the Cubs have made in their starting rotation, the starters should be going deeper. That eliminates the middle man.

So the young Cubs got schooled by the veteran Cardinals and now find themselves 5.5 games out of first place, instead of 3.5. They either need help on the front end or in the back, longer outings by their rotation or better middle relief.

Which will come first?