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Cubs’ worth to get huge test in homestand vs. the best

Highly paid Alfonso Soriano Carlos Pencould make big difference for Cubs next two weeks.  |   Jeff Gross~Getty

Highly paid Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Pena could make a big difference for the Cubs the next two weeks. | Jeff Gross~Getty Images

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Updated: June 7, 2011 12:42AM

The Cubs put their money on the table now, like it or not.

After 30 games of what manager Mike Quade calls ‘‘hanging around’’ against mostly mediocre teams, the Cubs open a nine-game home­stand against the defending National League Central champion
Cincinnati Reds, the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals and the
defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

If it’s not a make-or-break homestand for these guys, the next 10 to 14 days — including a tough-looking, three-city trip to follow — could ­dictate the direction they take in 2011 and possibly beyond.

‘‘We’re all kind of feeling our way right now,’’ Quade said of his team and some upcoming opponents. ‘‘Maybe we’ll find out some stuff this week.’’

Stuff like:

† Can the big-money players on the highest-salaried roster in the division play to their contracts, as some began doing over the last week?

† Can they play well enough to stem the flow of bleacher deserters and inspire fans to spend three
figures a pop to watch their games in sellout numbers again?

† And, based on some of the above, can they make Cubs ownership and the front office think
more about buying than selling
during baseball’s traditional first big assessment period — the ­quarter-point of the season — in two weeks?

‘‘I showed up here expecting to be evaluating constantly — we didn’t have a ready-made club all set,’’ Quade said. ‘‘Then you go through spring training, and I was kind of anxious to see how it would play out.’’

Certainly, the Cubs suffered key injuries to fourth and fifth starters Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner. But the Cardinals lost a 20-game winner in Adam Wainwright for the season; the Milwaukee Brewers lost a Cy Young winner, Zack Greinke, for the first month; and the Reds haven’t gotten an inning yet from Johnny Cueto or Homer Bailey.

‘‘It’s not like, ‘Woe is me,’ because we’ve all had ‘Woe is me,’ ’’ Quade said.

More significant for the Cubs: their ongoing struggle to hit with men in scoring position, and the early struggles of the three veterans in the starting rotation, especially Ryan Dempster, who may have snapped out of his funk with a strong outing Tuesday in Los Angeles.

On the other hand, the Cubs have gotten unexpected help: Darwin Barney had a Rookie of the Month performance, Kosuke Fukudome and Starlin Castro had major-league-best production from the leadoff spot in April, and Alfonso Soriano has a major-league-leading 11 home runs.

‘‘I think we can do some little things that we’re missing right now,’’ Soriano said. ‘‘We fix it, we can be in good shape.’’

But for now, it all has led to a stutter-step and a sub-.500 record through the early soft part of the Cubs’ schedule.

‘‘I’d like to think that down the road we’ll be better than that, but at this point, that’s what we’ve played,’’ Quade said. ‘‘We’re not 14-16 because we got 100 bad breaks. We’ve been hanging around and been inconsistent. We’ve been consistent the last several days.’’

If there are doubts about whether this team is as good as its bloated $130 million payroll, the players won’t admit to any. Their series win in Los Angeles, four consecutive quality starts from the Big Three in the rotation and back-to-back games with homers for struggling $10 million slugger Carlos Pena have them riding a confidence wave into the weekend.

Now come the money games.

‘‘As far as the playing goes, we still have a lot of work to do,’’ Quade said. ‘‘But I look forward to this homestand, mainly because we start off with Cincinnati and the Cardinals. Let’s see where we’re at with them right now. I can’t wait to find out.’’

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