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Cubs can’t come up with a key hit

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



PHOENIX — When Arizona’s Justin Upton reached up against the right-field wall to glove Carlos Pena’s ninth-inning drive about an inch from the top of the yellow stripe Sunday — well, it figured.

‘‘I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t throw my hands up,’’ said the struggling Cubs slugger, who’s still looking for his first home run of the season.

But that moment near the end of the 4-3 loss to the Diamondbacks — with Marlon Byrd at second base — underscored a bigger go-figure trend for the Cubs than just Pena’s early struggles. Especially when it was followed two batters later by a game-ending double play.

And it’s not simply the losing record in one-run games, or that most of their games have been decided by three or fewer. It’s their remarkable inability to hit with men in scoring position — made more remarkable by the fact they get plenty of hits in almost every other situation.

It’s the reason the Cubs even trailed in the ninth, the reason Pena’s drive to the wall even carried so much drama with it.

‘‘We continue to work and continue to try to get better,’’ manager Mike Quade said after watching a 1-for-14 performance with runners in scoring position that dropped the team to .214 in that situation this season.

But small sample size or not, explaining the cause is another matter.

Only two teams in the majors have more hits than the Cubs, and nobody in baseball is getting anything close to the production the Cubs are from the top two spots in the order. But 20 teams have scored more runs because of the clutch-hitting thing.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the Cubs’ best in that situation, Jeff Baker (.385), is day-to-day because of a sore left shoulder as the team heads to Los Angeles.

‘‘We just haven’t been able to put that rally together. And for some reason .  .  . we’re having a little bit of trouble keeping that momentum and the rally going,’’ said Pena, who returned to the lineup after a two-game mental break and is 3-for-22 (.136) with runners in scoring position.

‘‘But it’s one of those signs that we’re not going on all cylinders right now — we’re just kind of battling,’’ Pena said. ‘‘The good thing is we’re still not far away from first place, and that’s surprising to me. It’s motivating to me, like, ‘Hey, we’re battling, and we’re still up there.’  ’’

They battled enough to put the leadoff man on base in seven of nine innings Sunday, yet they scored that guy only once. It was the second time in six games that they at least doubled the opponent’s hit total and lost.

‘‘We can’t do it all year like this, but, ‘Come on guys, we can definitely do that.’ That’s kind of the attitude we have,’’ Pena said. ‘‘Disappointed but hopeful.’’

On this day, the lack of run production wasted a good-enough starting performance from fill-in fourth starter Casey Coleman, whose strange three-run fourth inning — including three walks, a wild pitch, a balk, a safety-squeeze bunt and just one hit — consequently did him in.

Three times the Cubs put runners at third with less than two outs and stranded them there, including a one-out situation in the first with Starlin Castro up and the infield playing back — ‘‘what I call a free RBI,’’ Quade said. Castro popped to second, and Arizona starter Daniel Hudson then struck out Aramis Ramirez.

‘‘We just couldn’t do enough damage,’’ Quade said. ‘‘You’re encouraged by the fact that if we get decent starting pitching that keeps us in the game, we’ve got people that can give us two or three [innings] of pretty good relief. And just looking down the road, that’s a pretty good formula: lots of hits, good bullpen and the starting pitching improves. And eventually we’ll drive these runs in and we’ll put more runs on the board.’’



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