Joe Maddon, Kyle Hendricks search for answers after Chicago Cubs' loss

ST.LOUIS -- Tuesday felt a lot like Monday for the Chicago Cubs. After yet another middle inning meltdown and blown lead to the St. Louis Cardinals, en route to a 7-4 loss, manager Joe Maddon had little in the way of answers.

"You try to put the right names in the right spots," Maddon said after the game. "You have to keep putting them out there until it starts to work properly.

"That, for me, is so vital. To hold a small lead or small deficit in the middle sets a team apart. You look at what we've done this year, we're still over .500, we'd be in pretty good shape if we did a better job of handling the middle part of the ballgame."

This time the Cubs led 4-1 in the fifth inning when starter Kyle Hendricks -- we'll get to him in a moment -- gave it all back as Matt Carpenter took him deep with two on. Maddon pulled Hendricks after the inning and handed the tie game to Edwin Jackson. Jackson's history as a Cub combined with the team's pitching woes in the sixth inning this year is a combustible combination to say the least. Two outs and four hits later, Jackson was out of the game and the Cardinals led 6-4.

"We have to get better at holding leads," Maddon stated. "That middle part of the game is something we have to get better with."

Maddon said the same thing several different times because he has no answers right now. The Cubs have tried every possible arm this side of Double-A reliever CJ Edwards to replace sixth inning man Justin Grimm, who's been out with forearm inflammation, and nothing has worked. The Cubs have given up 19 runs in 25 games in the sixth inning alone. Even the imminent return of Grimm -- it could be any day – doesn't guarantee the Cubs anything.

"It's hard to count on that," general manager Jed Hoyer said before the game. "You have to assume you're going to be scrambling all the time because when one guy gets healthy a lot of time another guy might go down. I don't think you can just look forward to ‘when we're healthy' because that never really seems to happen."

That's not exactly reassuring. And if the Cubs had some depth in the middle innings then Hoyer's statement wouldn't be all that bad but Brian Schlitter, Phil Coke, Jason Motte, Gonzalez Germen and Jackson have all tried their hands in the sixth and ultimately failed.

"We did not lose games that we were supposed to win at the end of last year and that was a big part of our success," Hoyer said. "Already this year we've let some games slip away that we could have won. We need to get back to that.

"When you have to get 10-12 outs out of your bullpen it doesn't work over the long haul."

That, of course, brings us back to the starting staff. Just like in Monday's affair the starting pitcher couldn't hold a lead and didn't make it through even six innings. And just like Monday when Travis Wood gave back four runs after a five-run Cubs first, Hendricks served up a game-tying home run after his team handed him a three-run lead on Tuesday. And just like Maddon has no solution for his middle relief, Hendricks has no answers for his 5.61 ERA.

"Still trying to make the right adjustments," he said. "Just control overall. I have to change something up. Find it. Have to get out of it somehow."

Hendricks hasn't looked like the pitcher that came up last year and led the Cubs to a 10-2 record in his 12 starts. His control is a mess -- he hit two batters and walked two more on Tuesday -- and he isn't getting the movement we're used to seeing. But Maddon isn't ready to make a change just yet.

"I have a lot of faith in this guy," Maddon said. "I don't think everything is working for him right now. He doesn't have that typical sink."

With their fourth consecutive defeat the Cubs don't have a lot working for them as a team right now. Over the weekend they had little hitting, now it's the pitching that has let them down. They even called up reinforcements in relievers James Russell and Anthony Varvaro. Russell got out of a jam in the sixth but fell right into line with his bullpen mates by giving up a run in the seventh. We'll see how Varvaro fares soon enough.

"We've had two stretches where they've [the bullpen] thrown really well and two stretches where they've struggled," Hoyer admitted.

Hoyer also admitted he knows an even split of good stretches and bad isn't going to cut it over the long haul. If Maddon can't come up with any answers then it will be Hoyer and Theo Epstein's job to do so. They've left their manager with no bullpen depth. Maybe it wasn't something that was predictable but it's become a reality. Maddon is trying to keep a positive outlook.

"We're going to get better at that," Maddon said. "I have a lot of confidence in those guys."

Hendricks summed it up best, talking about himself, though he could have been talking about the pitching staff in general.

"The feel is just not there," he stated. "It's not that consistent, so obviously I have to change something."

Maddon's feel for his bullpen isn't there either. And yes, something has to change or the hopeful start to the season will be lost. It nearly is as the Cubs are just a game above .500. And that's with two more to play against the division-leading Cardinals.

"I know everyone is working hard," Hendricks said.

Activity shouldn't be confused with accomplishment. When it comes to the sixth inning little has been accomplished -- despite all the activity.