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Next nine games gives Cubs chance to show how good they are

BOSTON MA - MAY 22:  StarlCastro #13 Chicago Cubs is congratulated by manager Mike Quade #8 after Castro scored

BOSTON, MA - MAY 22: Starlin Castro #13 of the Chicago Cubs is congratulated by manager Mike Quade #8 after Castro scored in the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox on May 22, 2011 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Before this series, the two teams haven't played at Fenway Park since the 1918 World Series. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\GYI0064864578.jpg

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Updated: August 30, 2011 12:17AM

If there’s such a thing as a last stand in May for a big-league baseball team, then this might be it for the Cubs.

Nine home games against losing teams in the next nine days might be the Cubs’ last realistic chance to prove they’re as good as they keep saying they are.

Otherwise, considering the rough shape of their season and the tattered condition of their roster, the race could be on to see whether the Cubs or the Bulls are effectively eliminated first.

And the Cubs haven’t even played a game yet with the ivy at full green.

‘‘We’ve gotten through some tough times now, and you’d like to go home and have a good homestand and hang around for a little longer,’’ manager Mike Quade said of how important the next nine days are for the Cubs.

Hanging around. That’s as good as it’s been for a team that entered the season with few expectations outside its own clubhouse and has done nothing to raise them since. And it has hung around only because of the back-and-forth play of the teams at the top of the division.

Even with the underwhelming, banged-up New York Mets and ­National League Central also-rans in the Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros coming in, the Cubs are clearly not through the hard times.

Not with their most recent All-Star and hottest May hitter, Marlon Byrd, lost indefinitely after that horrifying beaning Saturday in Boston. Not with top young pitcher Andrew Cashner out through at least the All-Star break after aggravating his shoulder injury.

And not with top starter Matt Garza (elbow) and .376-hitting Jeff Baker (groin) looking at least uncertain in the short term as the team faces potential disabled-list decisions with them today.

It’s a clear crossroads affecting everything from wins and losses to hemorrhaging attendance and subsequent payroll spending.

As it stands, the starting rotation, which ranks last in the majors in ERA, can’t afford any more adversity. But the loss of Byrd as a driving force could be nearly as big a blow as the pitching issues.

‘‘It’s tough because you watch a guy like that and he doesn’t even ­really have to say anything as a leader,’’ outfielder Reed Johnson said. ‘‘You just watch the way he plays and his commitment to the game, and guys feed off that. That’s tough when you’re missing a piece like that.’’

So how soon before the Cubs start reshuffling the look and direction — if not purpose — of this season? How long before it’s all about Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney and pushing a more aggressive youth movement?

‘‘I think it’s way too early to look at the season in those terms,’’ assistant general manager Randy Bush said in the aftermath of the Cubs hitting bottom in Cincinnati last week in a series marred by ugly plays.

Even before they regrouped to play errorless ball in a two-game sweep of the Florida Marlins, the first winning team they managed a series win against this year.

‘‘We’re thrilled with the way Darwin’s playing. We’re thrilled with the way Castro’s developed. This is exciting stuff,’’ Bush said. ‘‘But at the same time I think we all feel we’re going through a rut right now where we can change this around very quickly. We really can.

‘‘What we’re experiencing right now is a bunch of character, quality, veteran players trying too hard because they want to win. They’re trying to do too much right now, and you’re seeing some very poor decisions leading to some terrible plays by players who are way better than that.’’

Every bit of that may be true. But with the events and roster casualties of the weekend, those left standing might need to do even more now. Especially if they don’t take care of business in the next nine days.

After that comes 38 games in 38 days because of a couple of rainouts, starting with the toughest-looking trip of the season to St. Louis, Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

‘‘At some point you have to get yourselves back healthy and playing good baseball before you can make a run,’’ Quade said. ‘‘We haven’t done that yet, but we’re still in this thing and we’ve hung around for this long. Eventually, we’ve got to put together a nice stretch.’’

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