DI­VI­SION CHAMPS ON ROPES

Dodgers, Nats, Cubs go from first to .500 or worse

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Jorge L. Or­tiz

They have reigned as di­vi­sion cham­pi­ons in each of the pre­vi­ous two years and are widely ex­pected to keep the crowns again this sea­son.

But af­ter com­bin­ing for eight play­off ap­pear­ances since 2015, the Dodgers, Na­tion­als and Cubs have a col­lec­tive record of 19-25, and none of them fea­ture a winning mark. At 5-9, the Dodgers sit in last place in the Na­tional League West, a star­tling turn­around for a team that came within one vic­tory of winning the World Se­ries.

While mid-April is not the time to make any procla­ma­tions for the sea­son, the rea­sons for the slow starts and what they might mean are worth ex­am­in­ing.

Dodgers

What has gone wrong: Third base­man Justin Turner, the team’s club­house leader, is side­lined with a bro­ken wrist and has yet to start tak­ing bat­ting prac­tice. In his ab­sence, key of­fen­sive cogs in­clud­ing Corey Sea­ger, Yasiel Puig and Chris Tay­lor have failed to pick up the slack. None was bat­ting bet­ter than .220 be­fore Sun­day.

How to fix it: Turner’s re­turn will help, but that prob­a­bly won’t hap­pen for an­other month or so. In the mean­time, the Dodgers could use more con­tri­bu­tions up and down the lineup. They’re third from the bot­tom in the league in home runs and on-base plus slug­ging per­cent­age.

They would also ben­e­fit from bet­ter per­for­mances from lefty starters Rich Hill and Alex Wood, both of whom have ERAs over 5.

Ob­jects in the mir­ror: The di­vi­sion­lead­ing Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs had beaten Los An­ge­les 11 times in a row, the long­est los­ing streak against an­other club in Dodgers his­tory, un­til Clay­ton Ker­shaw ended that run al­most sin­gle­hand­edly Sun­day in a 7-2 win. The day be­fore, the Dodgers failed to cap­i­tal­ize on Ari­zona starter Tai­juan Walker leav­ing af­ter two in­nings with a fore­arm strain, get­ting shut out by the Di­a­mond­backs bullpen over the fi­nal seven in a 9-1 loss.

The Di­a­mond­backs have been a ter­ror on the road de­spite the ab­sence of third base­man Jake Lamb and right fielder Steven Souza due to in­juries.

The long game: The Dodgers have al­ready lost as many games in 2½ weeks as they did dur­ing a 2½-month stretch last sea­son in which they went 52-9. It’s highly un­likely the Dodgers can repli­cate that kind of sea­son, and though they have es­sen­tially the same ros­ter as last year, the road to the play­offs fig­ures to present more ob­sta­cles.

Na­tion­als

What has gone wrong: Af­ter los­ing three of four at home to the Rock­ies, the Na­tion­als fell to 7-9 and were kept out of the cel­lar in the NL East only by the pres­ence of the hope­less Mar­lins. Be­fore this past week­end, Wash­ing­ton had not been two games be­low .500 since May 5, 2015.

The Na­tion­als of­fense was pow­ered last sea­son by Bryce Harper, An­thony Ren­don, Ryan Zim­mer­man and Daniel Mur­phy, all of whom de­liv­ered an OPS above .925. But that quar­tet is down to a duo, with Mur­phy still out as he re­cov­ers from surgery on his right knee and Zim­mer­man im­mersed in a slump that has dropped his bat­ting av­er­age to .122. In ad­di­tion, spark plug Trea Turner is bat­ting .203.

How to fix it: Give it time. Mur­phy is sched­uled to start get­ting re­hab at-bats this week, and Zim­mer­man, com­ing off a bounce-back sea­son, fig­ures to get go­ing at some point. In ad­di­tion, the Na­tion­als will ben­e­fit from out­fielder Adam Ea­ton re­turn­ing from his an­kle in­jury, likely this week.

Harper is off to a tor­rid start with a ma­jors-lead­ing seven home runs as he builds his ré­sumé in his fi­nal sea­son be­fore free agency, but he needs help.

Ob­jects in the mir­ror: The Mets’ nine-game winning streak ended Satur­day, but with a healthy ro­ta­tion at last, they won 11 of their first 12, the best start in fran­chise his­tory. They lead the di­vi­sion by three games.

In ad­di­tion, the surg­ing Phillies have won six in a row and eight of nine, and rookie Scott Kingery looks like the real thing.

The long game: The Na­tion­als cruised to the di­vi­sion ti­tle by at least eight games in each of the last two years, but this sea­son — with Harper on an MVP clip but the Mets sur­pris­ingly tor­rid — has shades of 2015 al­ready.

Cubs

What has gone wrong: Much like last year, the Cubs’ sit­u­a­tional hit­ting has been a prob­lem, as they have bat­ted .193 with run­ners in scor­ing po­si­tion, rank­ing 28th in the ma­jor leagues. And the lead­off spot still hasn’t been solved, as man­ager Joe Mad­don con­tin­ues to ex­per­i­ment with the likes of Ian Happ, who’s bat­ting .222, Al­bert Almora and even Ben Zo­brist.

In ad­di­tion, the first three turns through the ro­ta­tion have been rough, with Kyle Hen­dricks (3.71) the only starter to keep his ERA un­der 4.00. New­comer Yu Darvish has been a spe­cial con­cern as he has failed to com­plete five in­nings twice while yield­ing 10 earned runs in 15 in­nings.

How to fix it: An­thony Rizzo’s re­turn af­ter a stint on the dis­abled list with a back in­jury should help set­tle down an in­con­sis­tent of­fense that’s as likely to ex­plode for dou­ble-fig­ure runs as it is to get shut down.

More im­por­tant than that, the start­ing pitch­ers need to do their share. The bullpen has been bril­liant, but the re­liev­ers have had to clean up too many messes left by a ro­ta­tion yield­ing a 5.40 ERA.

Ob­jects in the mir­ror: Af­ter back-to­back los­ing sea­sons, the Pi­rates are rid­ing a youth­ful ro­ta­tion and pro­duc­tive of­fense to the top of the NL Cen­tral. They’re a sur­prise road­block in a year the Brew­ers and Car­di­nals were viewed as the Cubs’ pri­mary im­ped­i­ments.

The long game: The Cubs have played only five home games, fewer than any team in the big leagues. They showed their grit in com­ing back from 9-1 deficit to beat the Braves 14-10 on Satur­day.

JAYNE KAMIN-ONCEA/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Short­stop Corey Sea­ger is bat­ting .200 with one home run and four RBI as the de­fend­ing NL cham­pion Dodgers have strug­gled this sea­son and sit in last place in the NL West.

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