After a strong start, the Chicago Cubs have hit a bump in the road while trying to again establish themselves as the NL Central's best team.
With the way they've played lately, the Cincinnati Reds are quickly establishing themselves as the division's worst.The Cubs, who have lost three straight series, will look to get back on track Monday when they open a three-game set in Cincinnati against the Reds, who are looking to avoid their sixth consecutive loss.Chicago (18-13) got off to one of baseball's best start on the heels of winning the NL Central title last season, winning 15 of its first 21 games. But the Cubs are just 3-7 since despite having outscored opponents 56-43.The problem seems to be offensive consistency. Chicago averages a major league-best 6.1 runs, but it also has been on the winning end of some extremely lopsided scores. The Cubs have averaged 8.6 runs and outscored their opponents by nearly five runs in their 18 wins, but they've put up just 2.7 runs per game in their 13 losses.Chicago dropped the finale of its three-game series in St. Louis on Sunday in just that fashion, losing 5-3 -- the 14th time manager Lou Piniella's team has scored three runs or fewer."Offensively, we either have the nice big explosion or we seem to score three runs a lot, and we're not winning these 3-2, 3-1 ballgames," said Piniella, whose team is 2-12 when scoring three runs or less. "We've just got to keep working, that's all."The Cubs are an impressive 11-6 at home, but have dropped five of their last seven on the road.Those totals mirror the success and struggles of right fielder Kosuke Fukudome. Chicago's Japanese import hasn't had an problems getting adjusted to Wrigley Field, where he's hitting .448 with nine RBIs. But he's hitting only .232 in 14 road games, including .182 in his last 12.Carlos Zambrano may be the star of the Cubs' starting pitching staff, but Ryan Dempster (4-0, 3.16 ERA) is by far the rotation's most pleasant surprise. The converted closer and former starter has been impressive in his return to the rotation, and he went six innings while allowing three runs in his latest outing -- despite walking five -- a 19-5 win over Milwaukee on Wednesday."(He) has pitched well in every game and given us a chance to win," Piniella told the team's official Web site.The Reds (12-20) had only scored five runs in the first four games of their losing streak before breaking out for seven in the finale of a three-game set with Atlanta on Sunday. The problem was the pitching staff allowed a season high 14 in Cincinnati's fifth straight loss.Rookie Johnny Cueto (1-3, 5.40) will try to rebound from the worst start of his young major league career in his debut against the Cubs. Cueto, who became an overnight sensation after his first two dominant starts, lasted just 1 2-3 innings on Tuesday in St. Louis, giving up seven runs in a 7-2 loss.That performance prompted Cincinnati to bring in Mario Soto, the director of its Dominican academy, to work on Cueto's mechanics."We're trying to get him comfortable and get a good grip on his changeup and work on the slider a little bit," Soto told the Reds' official Web site.Reds right fielder Ken Griffey Jr. remains three homers shy of 600 for his career, and he's been stuck on 597 for the last nine games. He's hitting .167 with one RBI in that stretch.Two of Griffey's four homers this season came in Chicago from April 15-17, when the Cubs took two of three.