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Cubs bow to Dodgers as key players continue to struggle

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

LOS ANGELES — That’s one way to avoid problems with men in scoring position.

Avoid putting them there in the first place.

The Cubs’ scoring woes continued again Monday in a 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on yet another night they outhit their opponent.

Despite Alfonso Soriano’s major-league-leading 11th home run — albeit his eighth solo shot — the Cubs failed to score more than three runs for the fifth time in seven games.

It’s one of the biggest reasons they’ve lost six of their last eight and eight of their last 11. And it’s one of the biggest reasons they’re mired in fifth place in the National League Central — and closer to last place than fourth.

“It’s too early [to get down],” said Soriano, who has five home runs in his last five games. “It’s not even 30 games. There’s still a lot of games left, but we’ve got to hurry and win some games. We can’t get too far behind.”

‘‘Obviously, we’d like to have a few more wins,’’ Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said of the first month of the season. ‘‘The one thing we
really need to improve on, obviously, is hitting better with men in scoring position.’’

It was hard to blame this one on that problem, considering the Cubs were able to put runners as far as second base in only the first and seventh innings against Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (3-3).

In fact, Dodgers right fielder
Andre Ethier had as many hits with men in scoring position as the Cubs’ entire lineup — and he was held to an infield single that drove in a run during the Dodgers’ three-run fifth.

It was enough to extend the majors’ longest hitting streak in two years to 28 games, just three short of the Dodgers franchise record.

“That’s like a career for me in one season,” Soriano said. “That’s a lot of games.”

The soft hit toward the hole at short ended the night of Cubs lefty James Russell, who engaged in a pitcher’s duel with Kershaw until the fifth. He retired 12 of the 15 he faced until then, including seven straight.

Russell made a sparkling defensive play in the inning to save a run — charging Jamey Carroll’s squeeze bunt on the first pitch after a mound visit by Mark Riggins, and scooping it to catcher Geovany Soto for the out at the plate.

That was the second out of an inning that already included a strikeout-wild pitch that allowed Kershaw a free base — even after the ball hit Kershaw’s bat as he let go of it.

“I can’t imagine you can have a bat in your hand, and after swinging it, the ball hits the bat like that and it’s not at least a dead ball,” said manager Mike Quade, who unsuccessfully argued the play. “If that’s the rule, they probably ought to change it.”

Russell looked like he might be able to escape without a run scoring after the bunt play, but Jerry Sands followed with a two-run double on a 2-2 pitch and continued to third on Marlon Byrd’s throwing error. That allowed Sands to score on Ethier’s ensuing slap shot.

And that was it for Russell, who fell to 0-4 in his four spot starts in place of injured fifth-starter Andrew Cashner.

The Cubs now are 1-7 in the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation since injuries to Cashner and Randy Wells. Casey Coleman and Russell have a combined 8.54 ERA in those eight starts.

“It’s tough, one pitch away from a great outing or a little bit of a disaster,” Quade said of Russell’s start. “He’s gotten better. His approach is better. We’ll see what happens down the road.”

The bottom line just over a month in the season is a team that opened the Dodgers series exactly where it was when it closed 2010 — in fifth place in the National League Central with a losing record.

But Hendry isn’t in any rush to join the sellers market anytime soon and sees reasons to think a surge could be coming.

‘‘The makeup of this ballclub is very strong,’’ Hendry said. ‘‘It’s a bunch of guys working hard, staying on the same pace together. And hitting can be contagious either way. So far, with men on base, it hasn’t been contagious the right way. That can change quickly.’’

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