Why Cubs’ nine-game gauntlet could define entire NL Central race

MILWAUKEE — The calendar still says late July, but there’s bound to be an October feel inside the National League Central playoff race as the Chicago Cubs face off against their top two rivals nine times over the course of the next 10 days.

In between two series with the Milwaukee Brewers is a first-place showdown with the St. Louis Cardinals, who’ve caught the Cubs in the standings after a middle-of-the-week sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates. If the on-the-field storylines weren’t juicy enough, the approaching July 31 trade deadline should produce some drama of its own as all three front offices vie to improve their teams.

On the field and in the boardrooms, battles will be waged.

“This could be a week which defines our season,” Cubs star Kris Bryant said without mincing a single word. “Playing the Brewers, playing the Cardinals, trade deadline. Everyone is thinking we’re going to make moves. I think we might look back on this week at the end of the season and it will tell us a lot about where we (end up) at the end of the year.”

That doesn’t sound like the usual ‘let’s take one game at a time’ spiel normally heard around locker rooms this far from October. But the Cubs know what everyone must realize by now as well: The winner of the battle from within is likely to win the division.

“One hundred percent,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said with a nod of his head. “Whoever has the best record within the division, from here on out, is going to take it.”

What team that might be is anyone’s guess. To this point, the Cubs are 20-17 against division foes while the Cardinals are 24-19 and the Brewers are 25-20. Those are all similar winning percentages, but it’s the Cubs who have the most games left inside the division and that gives them the feeling that their fate is in their own hands.

“We totally have to figure out the people in our own group (division),” manager Joe Maddon said. “It will give us some perspective on where we’re at.”

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Where the Cubs are right now is in Milwaukee, for three games against last year’s division winner. Then comes a series in St. Louis, beginning on Tuesday, before hosting Milwaukee in a Wrigley showdown. Pull back the curtain on the Cubs’ 55-47 record and you’ll see why the location of these games could be so important. Chicago is just 19-29 on the road, so perhaps there’s one more key component to taking the division: A winning away record from here on out.

“We have to figure out this road dilemma,” Maddon said. “That’s the biggest thing. Our play at home has been exemplary. Why can’t we win these games on the road?”

Even when Maddon thinks he has an answer, the numbers don’t bear it out for him. The Cubs have the second worst road ERA in the NL, to go along with the third best OPS away from home. So it’s the pitching, right?

“It surprises me our pitching numbers are down on the road and the hitting numbers are still well,” Maddon said. “I would never have guessed that.”

Not much has made sense away from Wrigley Field, where the Cubs are 5-10 in one-run games and just dropped two 5-4 heartbreakers in San Francisco. Whatever holes the Cubs possess usually manifest themselves away from home. Their saving grace is both Milwaukee and St. Louis also have losing records on the road, keeping the NL Central race extremely tight.

“We play our division a lot,” Rizzo said. “We know what they have, they know what we have. It’s good.”

But what each has may change by the second half of this nine-game stretch. On Wednesday, the one and only MLB trade deadline will come and go just as the Cubs and Cardinals begin batting practice for Game 2 of their series. With such a close race, the winner come July 31 may end up being the winner come Sept. 29.

“We’re all watching,” Cubs reliever Brad Brach said. “We’re curious who the front office is going to add, just like everyone else.”

Whenever the conversation drifts towards the deadline, it’s quickly brought back to the task on the field. It’s not like the players have any say in who the team brings in anyway. And no matter who comes to help, the Cubs still have that awful road record to deal with. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only three teams have won their respective divisions while finishing the season at least 10 games under .500 on the road.

“It’s very urgent,” Bryant said of turning their road woes around. “And I think it shows too. After losses here, we’re taking it much harder than we ever have. That’s a good thing.

“I know Joe always preaches win and lose hard for 30 minutes, but I think it’s going a little longer because we want to win. We’re motivated.”

In a weird way, the problems away from Wrigley have brought the team closer. Misery loves company, and with 29 road losses, the Cubs are feeling plenty awful.

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“It’s good thing to feel the wins together but feel the losses together as well,” Bryant continued. “That’s going to make us a better team and more motivated. I think, in the past, we didn’t look at losses that way because we were winning so much. Now, it’s ‘let’s marinate in these losses more,’ be pissed off and come get them tomorrow.”

It’s with that attitude the Cubs begin their most important stretch of games to date. They’ve already shown a sense of urgency off the field, jettisoning veteran Carl Edwards and infielder Addison Russell to the minors along with bringing up Ian Happ — and there’s bound to be more movement by month’s end — but most important is playing good baseball.

“That would be the key to having a successful rest of the year,” Maddon said. “To be so polar, it’s really strange.”

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