Can the Cubs maintain their lead in NL Central?

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Anthony Rizzo (pictured) and Ben Zobrist have been carrying a struggling Cubs offense as of late. But they are going to need a lot of support if the team wants to stay atop the NL Central.

    Anthony Rizzo (pictured) and Ben Zobrist have been carrying a struggling Cubs offense as of late. But they are going to need a lot of support if the team wants to stay atop the NL Central. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 8/20/2018 6:02 PM

Sunday marked the 49th anniversary of Ken Holtzman's no-hitter for the Cubs against the Atlanta Braves.

The 1969 Cubs seemed on top of the world then, with an 8-game lead in the National League East. Things went downhill from there, as the Cubs wound up 8 games behind the hard-charging New York Mets, who went on to win the World Series.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Little did anyone see at the time, but the '69 Cubs team was crumbling from the inside.

Fast-forward to today.

The Cubs enjoyed an off-day Monday in possession of the best record in the NL (71-52), good for a 3½-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers and 4 games over the hard-charging St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.

The '69 Cubs could not hold on. Can the 2018 Cubs hold on?

There's still a lot to like about this version of the Cubs, who are shooting for their fourth straight postseason appearance and who have what seems to be a favorable stretch of games ahead of them against sub-.500 teams: Detroit, Cincinnati and the Mets.

But there are plenty of warning signs, too, some obvious and some not so obvious.

To wit:

• Since coming back from the all-star break with an NL-best run differential of plus-114, the Cubs have lost 25 runs off that, seeing their differential shaved down to plus-89. The good news for the Cubs is that the plus-89 still gives them an "expected" (or Pythagorean) win-loss record of 72-51, better than that of the Brewers (66-60) and the Cardinals (69-56).

The Cubs scored only 1 run in each of the four games at Pittsburgh this past weekend. Players such as Javier Baez (.239 in August), Addison Russell (.231), Willson Contreras (.208), Albert Almora Jr. (.200) and Ian Happ (.167) will need to pick it up in support of Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist, who have carried the team on offense this month.

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The team continues to miss their top player, third baseman Kris Bryant, who has been on the disabled list since July 24 with left-shoulder inflammation.

• The problems of the starting rotation have been well documented. Big free-agent signing Yu Darvish has not pitched since May 20, and he cut short yet another rehab start Sunday as his right elbow continues to bother him. Now, it's questionable whether he picks up a ball again this season.

Another free-agent signing, Tyler Chatwood, has been wholly wild and ineffective, with a record of 4-6 with a 5.22 ERA and an astronomical WHIP of 1.81, thanks largely to a league-leading 93 walks in 101⅔ innings pitched.

Rotation replacement Mike Montgomery went on the disabled list last week with shoulder inflammation.

One result of all this has been a precipitous drop in the number of quality starts turned in by the Cubs. In 123 games, they have 47 quality starts, going 37-10 in those games. Their starters have a 1.37 ERA in quality starts. The Cubs have 76 non-quality starts, and they have gone 34-42 in those games, with the starters having an ERA of 6.45 in those games.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

After 123 games last year, the Cubs had 57 quality starts. In their world-championship season of 2016, the Cubs had a staggering 77 quality starts over 123 games.

The July 27 trade for lefty Cole Hamels has been a godsend for the Cubs, and it may end up saving the season.

• Although the bullpen has been stalwart for the Cubs -- their relief ERA of 3.22 is second best in the NL -- they continue to do it without closer Brandon Morrow, who has appeared in only 35 games this year because of injury.

The lack of quality starts poses a real threat to the freshness of the pen. Unheralded reliever Pedro Strop has picked up the slack with 10 saves. Strop currently ranks 12th all time in appearances for the Cubs (352), and he's certain to move into the top 10 before the season ends.

The one saving grace for the Cubs has been the "Iowa shuttle," by which the team has been able to call up and send back relief pitchers with minor-league options between Chicago and Class AAA Iowa.

Counting Montgomery, who started the season in the pen, the Cubs have employed 20 relief pitchers this season.

When the season ends, you may or may not remember the names of Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Cory Mazzoni, Rob Zastryzny, Dillon Maples, Alec Mills and James Norwood. All came in from the pen at some point this season, and the Cubs got big contributions from Randy Rosario and Anthony Bass.

• Follow Bruce's baseball reports on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.

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