Maddon determined to keep Cubs fresh for finishing kick

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs reached the .500 mark again with their 7-1 victory Sunday against the Pirates at PNC Park and headed home for a brief homestand fresh from winning a road series for the first time since April.

So is it finally time for the urgency to set in? Is it finally time to hit the accelerator on a season that has been stuck in neutral for 2½ months?

Not according to manager Joe Maddon. Maybe the players will rediscover some urgency on their own, but nobody’s getting pushed anytime soon.

‘‘If you do it right now, I promise you you’ll be toast,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘By Aug. 15, you will not see that wonderful finish that you’re used to seeing if you push too hard right now.’’

No pushing was necessary Sunday because of a smooth-sailing start by veteran John Lackey and productive days at the plate from leadoff man Anthony Rizzo and No. 3 hitter Willson Contreras.

Lackey (5-7) allowed one run and two hits in six innings in his best start since pitching seven scoreless innings May 9 in Colorado. He had been 1-4 with a 6.48 ERA in six starts since then, lasting less than six innings in four of them and looking more typically like a 38-year-old pitcher.

But Maddon refused to stretch Lackey beyond 95 pitches, even though he retired the last six batters he faced without a ball leaving the infield.

‘‘[Leaving a game early] doesn’t always resonate with John,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘I accept that because I know my audience. However, it was still the right thing to do.’’

Lackey acknowledged his distaste for that approach.

‘‘I’m just going to try and enjoy the rest of the season and try to calm down a little bit and enjoy myself a little bit more,’’ he said.

But this is the point in backing off — across the board — after back-to-back deep postseason runs, Maddon said.

He saw it as a coach with the 2003 Angels after their World Series championship in 2002. That team also was 34-34 and hit a 3-14 wall from late July into mid-August that buried it.

He saw it as a manager with the 2009 Rays after their run to the World Series in 2008. That team was 35-33 at this point, pushed its limited player resources to try to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox and hit an 11-game losing streak the first half of September that buried it.

‘‘In spite of not playing anywhere near our best baseball, we’re not in bad position right now,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘So we’ve got to be grateful and thankful for that.

‘‘I do believe our best game is ahead of us this year, based on experience. Two times [before this], I’ve been to the World Series. And normally the following season there’s been, like, this push to get back. And when the push occurs, what normally [follows] is that you run out of fuel by the middle of August.’’

So Lackey was pulled after six strong innings, veteran Ben Zobrist went on the disabled list for an extra dose of rest for his ailing left wrist and Kris Bryant got another day off after returning Saturday from two days of rest that didn’t seem to be enough.

‘‘You want to be ready for
August, September and October,’’ said Bryant, who has struck out in five consecutive at-bats. ‘‘I’ve been feeling a little fatigued recently. I’m on board with [the rest]. But I’m ready to go. I’m 25.’’

‘‘It was two long seasons for him, and there’s a lot going on off the field for him,’’ Maddon said of the increased media and endorsement demands on Bryant.

‘‘Patience is a real big word right now. Having rested, healthy people by August matters a lot.’’

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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