Can Cubs ride out their up-and-down rotation?

HOUSTON -- The video highlights from Memorial Day -- or the lowlights, in this case -- undoubtedly will show Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez performing a rare feat: He struck out five times against the Houston Astros while swinging and missing at 13 pitches -- the most by a player in a single game in more than 10 seasons. That's some dramatic stuff, but it tells us little about the Cubs going forward. There's not a lot of significance to it.

More important was the performance of Chicago starter Cole Hamels, who is trending in the wrong direction. In fact, the entire Cubs rotation has gone the wrong way as of late. Is this cause for concern or just a blip?

"It just tests who you are and tests the staff, for who we are," Hamels said after lasting only four innings in Monday's 6-5 loss. "We have to build back up and get back to playing the game we know we can."

Talk about bottoming out: Hamels failed to strike out a batter for the first time since 2008. That ended the fifth longest streak (since 1920) of consecutive appearances with a strikeout at 343 games. It's appropriate because the Cubs' staff -- including the rotation -- isn't prone to whiffing the opposition at key moments. They rank 15th in strikeout rate with runners in scoring position. There are 10 contending teams who rank higher.

Sometimes inducing soft contact isn't enough, as evidenced by what happened to Hamels on Monday. During a five-run third inning by the Astros, he gave up soft contact throughout, but it was enough for Houston to record four hits, interspersed with two walks. It was a snapshot of how the rotation is going right now. Since the middle of May, the Cubs' starting staff ranks 23rd in strikeout percentage, while the opposition is hitting .384 on batted balls in play -- worst in baseball. Not surprisingly, the rotation's ERA during that time frame is 6.33, 26th in the game.

"We have a great group," Maddon said after the latest short outing by one of his starters. "I know they've been struggling a bit as of late, but that happens. When you've been nailing it for a while, you're going to struggle for a bit, then you're going to come back and nail it again."

That, more than anything, should be the biggest takeaway regarding the Cubs' rotation. What Maddon said sounds like a cliché, but this particular staff is going to be streaky. They've shown it already. For about a month, they went untouched, as April turned into May. But Jon Lester's 1.16 ERA wasn't sustainable. Neither was Hamels' walkless streak, which lasted 22 innings. Both pitchers in all likelihood will end up with an ERA in the 3s. It's where they've been throughout their lengthy careers. The question for the Cubs is, are those ERAs closer to 3.00 or closer to 4.00?

"All of us know what we're capable of doing," Hamels said. "It's a matter of us plugging away."

The good news regarding the Cubs' rotation is also the bad news. It's solid, with a higher floor than most, especially with Jose Quintana pitching better than ever. But the ceiling has its limits. So no matter what kind of run these starters go on, there's always going to be regression. It's the difference between this rotation and the one the Cubs had in 2016 that helped win the World Series. Lester was younger back then, and Jake Arrieta was in his prime. The sky was the limit. That's not the case now.

If this all sounds like the Cubs' rotation has an inevitability to it, that's the point. It does. But that doesn't mean we know what's going to happen. The difference between its floor and ceiling might not be big, but it probably will determine how far the team goes.

And, of course, those bad stretches -- like the one the Cubs are in now -- have consequences beyond likely losing a particular game.

"It puts that bullpen in a really bad situation," Hamels said. "When you do it multiple times -- I think this is my third start -- it's not good."

Hamels has pitched into the seventh inning just once over his past seven starts, helping tax the pen that needed catcher Victor Caratini to pitch over the weekend in an 8-2 game against the Cincinnati Reds, not exactly an overwhelming blowout.

The starting staff needs a reset, which it will get come Thursday, the team's first off day in more than two weeks. Hamels said as much, indicating a breather can give a pitcher a chance to work on something outside the normal five-day grind.

"Sometimes timing is good, sometimes timing is bad," Hamels said of the current situation.

It's also safe to assume the opposition's batted balls in play average will come down simply due to some better fortune, but the Cubs don't want to rely on that. They want to rely on experience and know-how to overcome any shortcomings. More often than not, they've been able to, but Memorial Day provides a reminder how long the season really is. We're inching toward the first third being complete. By Labor Day, we'll have a much better idea of how the older but talented staff has fared. Until then, the Cubs will search for consistency.

"It would be nice to run through a whole season with no regression and no bumps, but the human part, sometimes it does happen," Hamels said.