The biggest surprise for the 2017 Cubs? A struggling rotation

LOS ANGELES -- What’s the biggest Memorial Day surprise besides the Chicago Cubs' 25-24 record? It has to be their starting staff, which ranks ninth in ERA (4.50) in the National League after a six-run outing by their ace, Jon Lester, on Sunday and a total of 15 runs given up in 14⅓ innings by the team’s three starters in a weekend sweep by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Lester said it simply -- and best -- after a 9-4 loss on Sunday.

“When you’re able to get runs off [Johnny] Cueto and [Clayton] Kershaw, you can’t waste them,” Lester said inside the Cubs' clubhouse at Dodger Stadium.

The Cubs and Lester did exactly that -- they wasted a good opportunity against Kershaw after beating Cueto a few days earlier. They chased the lefty after just 4⅓ innings and four runs given up, including three home runs. The Cubs had 11 hits off of him. That combination of hits and home runs has never happened to Kershaw in a game. Ever. Yet Lester, staked with a lead, couldn’t hold on. He gave up two three-run home runs, and the Dodgers never looked back.

“Not good,” Lester said. “Nothing was really sharp. Didn’t have command of my fastball. Just inconsistent.”

Inconsistent is the word used most often this year to describe a starting staff that put up historic numbers a season ago on the way to the team winning 103 games. A bit of regression was inevitable, but seeing rotations in Arizona, Milwaukee and even Colorado faring better in comparison has been quite alarming for the Cubs.

“The starting pitching was not to our standards,” Maddon said of the first weeks of the season.

The bar has been lowered so much that when the rotation puts together just a few quality starts, it feels like a turnaround is at hand. In reality, the staff's ERAs tell a different story. John Lackey's ERA is above 5.00 (5.18) while Jake Arrieta's isn’t far behind (4.92). Kyle Hendricks (3.25) and Lester (3.86) and are holding down the fort -- save for Sunday’s performance. The less said about Brett Anderson's forgetful two starts the better.

Lester’s description of his latest outing could sum up the Cubs' season on the mound so far:

“Felt like when we made pitches they found bad parts of the bat,” he declared.

The rotation has given up 39 home runs in 49 games, so their pitches have been finding bad parts of the bat for a while now. And that’s well ahead of their pace from one season ago when they gave up 108 in 162 games. And though it's perhaps not fair to compare them to last season, it is fair to judge them based on the rest of the league. The team's starting pitching happens to be where most of the Cubs' salary is tied up as well.

That’s not to say the rotation alone is to blame for the Cubs' woes. They’re hitting a league-low .217 with men in scoring position, and the defense is just now starting to come around.

“We’re hitting young right now,” Maddon said before Sunday’s game.

Maddon means his team is making youthful mistakes in the batter’s box. That’s fixable, but there is no simple fix to the rotation. Either the Cubs' top four starters start to resemble last season's version or this underwhelming start to the season will continue. Barring a trade, there isn’t anything the manager can do about it. The Cubs' best players on the mound have to be their best players, even when the offense sputters.

“Back to work tomorrow,” Lester said. “Get back to the way I was throwing the ball prior to this.”

The entire Cubs rotation should want the same.