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Cubs have much to overcome down stretch

Cubs have much to overcome

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CHICAGO -- The first half hasn't been easy for the Cubs.

Lou Piniella has scribbled more lineup combinations than ever because of injuries. The Cubs have changed hitting coaches and their leadoff man. The good news is the starting pitchers have been steady. The bad news is the bats aren't backing them up. Milton Bradley, in the first year of a three-year, $30 million contract, seems to be doing his best hitting in the cage. Alfonso Soriano is so confused at the plate, he couldn't wait for the All-Star break so he can "clean his head."

2009 Midterm Report

The team has had the projected regular lineup of Soriano, Ryan Theriot, Derrek Lee, Bradley, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Geovany Soto and Mike Fontenot together twice -- Opening Day and July 6. And on July 7, the Cubs announced Ryan Dempster had broken his right big toe as he was climbing over the dugout railing to celebrate a win.

The month of June was especially tough, including seven extra-inning games, 14 one-run decisions, bad road trips and Piniella telling Bradley to go home, then apologizing for a private comment made public.

The old water fountain was back in the Cubs' dugout at Wrigley Field because a new Gatorade dispenser had to be removed. It was the target of too many fists and bats. If the Cubs could just make that kind of contact on the field, they'd have a chance to catch St. Louis.

Club MVP: Lee got off to a slow start, batting .189 in the first month, but picked up the pace after that and will finish with more home runs in the first half (17 through July 10) than he did one year ago (15). He was especially key following the loss of Ramirez for two months because of a shoulder injury.

Call him "Ace": Ted Lilly's All-Star selection was well deserved. The lefty leads the Cubs in quality starts and has been the most consistent. His strikeout-to-walks ratio ranks among the NL leaders, as well as his home ERA.

Greatest strength: Starting pitching. The Cubs lead the Major Leagues in quality starts, including 13 by Lilly, and the starters rank fifth in the Majors in ERA. However, they will open the second half without Dempster, who could miss one month.

Biggest problem: The offense. After leading the National League in runs scored last year en route to a 97-win season, the Cubs are near the bottom in nearly every offensive category, and even worse on the road, batting .235. Soriano was dropped from his preferred No. 1 spot to sixth on July 4 in an attempt to get him out of a prolonged slump. Bradley has looked like anything but a .321 hitter, which he was in 2008 with Texas.

Biggest surprise: Rookie Randy Wells was being considered for the bullpen at the start of the year, but instead was assigned to Triple-A Iowa and stretched out as a starter. Called up in May, he's compiled a sub-3.00 ERA.

Team needs: Sean Marshall is the only left-hander in the bullpen and has to be used sparingly. Neal Cotts, who began the season in the 'pen, is no longer an option after undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery.

He said it: "The goal is to win the division. That's our goal. There's no other goal. No other goal whatsoever." -- Piniella

Mark your calendar: The Cubs' toughest trip will be toward the end of the season, when they travel to St. Louis (Sept. 18-20), Milwaukee (Sept. 21-23) and San Francisco (Sept. 24-27). The Brewers come back to Wrigley one more time from Sept. 14-17. They still have a West Coast swing, which starts Aug. 17 in San Diego and ends with a four-game series in Los Angeles.

Fearless second-half prediction: If Bradley can put his swing together from the left side, if Soriano can get on a hot streak, if they can improve their dismal road numbers, survive a month without Soto and stay healthy, they have a chance at a three-peat as National League Central champs. That's a lot of ifs.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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