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Cubs sleep-walk through sweep by Reds

StarlCastro tripled fourth inning Thursday but was picked off first second. | Charles Cherney~AP

Starlin Castro tripled in the fourth inning Thursday but was picked off first in the second. | Charles Cherney~AP

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The facts: 1:20 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.

The starters: Chris Volstad (3-10, 6.26) vs. Chris Carpenter (season debut).

The rest of the series

Saturday: 12:05 p.m., Ch. 9, 720-AM. Travis Wood (6-12, 4.25) vs. Adam Wainwright (13-13, 3.97).

Sunday: 1:20 p.m., Ch. 9, 720-AM. Justin Germano (2-8, 6.17) vs. Kyle Lohse (15-3, 2.71).

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Updated: October 22, 2012 6:29AM

Suppose somebody could have guaranteed before the season started that Ryan Dempster would have a 2.25 ERA for the Cubs, that Jeff Samardzija’s conversion to power starter would be a success, that Starlin Castro would lead all major-league shortstops in RBI and that Alfonso Soriano would be a 30-homer, 100-RBI cleanup hitter?

Add guarantees that Darwin Barney would become a Gold Glove favorite, that Anthony Rizzo would hit .296 for the Cubs with a homer every five games and that Carlos Marmol wouldn’t blow a save in the second half as the closer.

And then this: That a playoff berth would be clinched at Wrigley Field on Sept. 20 after a newly acquired Cubs starter pitches six scoreless, two-hit innings against the Cincinnati Reds.

Enough to inspire October Cubbie dreams? Hey, maybe that Sun-Times photo of Theo Epstein walking on water back in April wasn’t photo-shopped after all?

Dream on.

That every one of those scenarios has come true underscores how deep this team has been gutted and how far it is from competing anytime soon with the likes of the young and talented Reds, who finished off a three-game sweep Thursday with a 5-3 victory against the Cubs.

Much less compete anytime soon with the young, perhaps even-more-talented Washington Nationals — the other major-league team to have reached 90 victories with two weeks to play.

“They’ve got some guys on the bench that could play every day, as well as a very good starting lineup,’’ Cubs manager Dale Sveum said even before a Reds’ lineup made up entirely of bench guys peppered reliever Manny Corpas for five runs in the seventh. “Whenever you’re looking on the other side of the fence, you think those are the kind of teams you’d like to [emulate in a rebuilding process], and have longevity as well.

“It’s where you’ve got to go.’’

While the Reds head home to take an outside shot at 100 wins, the Cubs regroup after a fruitless, listless week to take a shot at the 5-7 finish they need to avoid 100 losses.

This while continuing the pretense of auditions for next year with a 30-something-man roster with less than half harboring any realistic expectation of making a 2013 opening roster that figures to be less than imposing.

Next up for the Cubs is a hungry second-place Cardinals team that has won four consecutive games, and a chance to officially eliminate the Cards from the division race.

“Hopefully, we’ll have more [energy] than we had the last few days, that’s for sure,’’ Sveum said. “With the spoiler factor [we hope] to come out and play with a lot more enthusiasm than we had the last few days and focus a little more.’’

Sveum was still ticked off Thursday at Luis Valbuena’s inattentiveness Wednesday night that resulted in a sleep-walking pickoff at second before the pitcher even returned to the rubber after Valbuena’s double.

“It seems we have one of these things every three or four days that are just not even explainable,’’ the Cubs manager said. And then Castro got picked off at first base in the second inning Thursday by Johnny Cueto, caught leaning on a 3-2 pitch with one out.

“No reason to push the envelope there, especially when the guy’s got the best [pickoff] move in baseball,’’ Sveum said.

This is the level of managing, teaching and tolerating the Cubs are doing, while teams such as the Reds and Nationals open windows of opportunity for untold years in the National League.

And before assuming small-market clubs such as the Reds and the playoff-challenging Milwaukee Brewers will inevitably and quickly cycle back to earth, consider the recent news of MLB’s new national TV deals that will put an average of nearly $25 million more per year in every team’s coffers starting in 2014.

Even small market teams with cores in place have no excuse for breaking them up anytime soon.

Meanwhile, guys such as national writer Buster Olney send out Twitter links to the video on Valbuena’s gaffe with the simple note: “The Cubs. Less than two weeks to go.’’

Two weeks. And countless miles.

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