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Future starts now for Kosuke Fukudome

Cubs pinch hitter Kosuke Fukudome opens 8th inning with single White Sox' 3-2 wover Cubs game two Crosstown Classic between

Cubs pinch hitter Kosuke Fukudome opens the 8th inning with a single in the White Sox' 3-2 win over the Cubs in game two of the Crosstown Classic between the host Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs Tuesday June 21, 2011 at US Cellular Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 29, 2011 12:32AM

Unable to kick the White Sox while they were down, the Cubs are still headed nowhere — well, technically, Kansas City — as they approach the halfway point in the season.

Their slight improvements in pitching and health recently are too little, too late. They need a .580 finish just to go .500 for the season. Their occasionally maligned owner says their oft-maligned manager and long-maligned general manager are staying put. And even as the brass meets next week for its annual look ahead at the trading deadline, a truckload of bad contracts will render much of that process moot.

Then there’s this little dose of
reality: Not only do the Cubs trail the fourth-place Pittsburgh Pirates by seven games in the National League Central, but many expect the Pirates to be buyers at the deadline for the first time in nearly 20 years.

But somewhere beneath the rubble still breathes the potential for something big down the stretch for at least one veteran Cub.

In fact, the next two or three weeks could be a critical crossroads for Kosuke Fukudome’s 31/2-year
career in the majors, if not a second chance to build his legacy.

Not since his first three months in Chicago in 2008 has Fukudome had the opportunity — and the burden — that faces him now as a professional baseball player.

We already know the Cubs lost when they won the overbidding war for the celebrated Japanese batting champion, who went from a deceptive All-Star to a $48 million bench player by the end of his first season.

But Fukudome is at least a qualified success story for the Cubs so far this season — emphasis on ‘‘so far’’ — maintaining the highest leadoff on-base percentage (minimum 150 plate appearances) in the majors at .397 despite his standard dropoff after a monster April.

And despite the fact he doesn’t start against most lefties, he’s beginning to attract at least ‘‘feeler’’
interest from potential contenders looking for help at the top of the
order and in the outfield.

Whether that creates an opportunity for the Cubs to shed a portion of the $6.8 million left on his contract, or even an opportunity to acquire a valuable prospect, it gives Fukudome a chance to re-establish his value and possibly draw some decent free-agent offers next winter.

Especially if he were to perform well for a contender down the stretch and into October.

‘‘As far as next year, I don’t
really think about that right now,’’
Fukudome said through his interpreter during the Cubs-Sox series.

But he has told many people close to him in recent months that he hopes to keep playing in the United States after this season and doesn’t want to return to the Japanese Leagues, even amid speculation that he might earn more on his next contract by returning home.

Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo has worked especially hard this season to keep Fukudome — a .345 career hitter in April and a .245 hitter after April — more consistent through the season. That has involved backing him off the plate some, encouraging him to be aggressive with good pitches earlier in the count and keeping him thinking middle and opposite-field.

Fukudome discounts the importance of a specifically strong finish, saying he thinks more about a strong full season.

But he also acknowledges his 31/2 seasons in Chicago haven’t felt any better to him than they have to most Cubs fans.

‘‘There are some games that I did play well, and there are some games that I didn’t do well,’’ he said. ‘‘As far as what I think, I can’t [be satisfied with] myself. I just need to do better.’’

No time like now, as the Cubs seem destined to try to shed payroll by the July 31 trade deadline.

Fukudome downplayed the potential incentive for him.

‘‘It doesn’t really matter,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t really think about [it] at all. What I need to do is the best I can do right now, and that’s the same all the time.’’

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