BY TONI GINNETTI
For the Sun-Times
August might bring “dog days’’ to many baseball teams, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon sees it as a time when the best show their stuff.
“I’m always looking for teams to get better by August,’’ he said. “That’s part of my minor-league training, too.’’
His team has done that, ushering in the month with its best winning stretch of the season, including sweeping a four-game series from a team it might have to beat for a playoff spot.
How they did it was as significant.
In the 2-0 victory Sunday over the defending world-champion San Francisco Giants, the Cubs made the most of only four hits, accomplished “the little things’’ defensively and held strong in the ninth when the Giants loaded the bases with no outs.
“I think we’ve been ready [to win] for a while,’’ starter Jake Arrieta said. “It was figuring out how to do it, how to close out a series like that, and I think we have.
“In the past, we might have let that game slip away.’’
Instead, closer Hector Rondon struck out the side to secure the first four-game sweep of the Giants at Wrigley Field since June 1977.
More important, it gave the Cubs a 3½-game lead over the Giants for the second wild-card spot.
“I understand people might say this already is a successful year,’’ Maddon said. “But the nicer story is to get to the playoffs and do well. Why would you not [want that]?
“ ‘Aim high’ always has been my motto.’’
The series showcased an improving offense and defense, even as it brought the benching of slumping shortstop Starlin Castro.
It also highlighted a solidifying pitching staff, with Arrieta (13-6) giving another dominating performance and closer Rondon (19th save) adding his own drama.
“He made a lot of good pitches and just battled,’’ catcher Miguel Montero said of Rondon, who gave up a single and a double and hit a batter before the strikeouts, the last by Gregor Blanco looking.
“I was telling him, ‘Don’t rush.’ Slow the game down a little. Hector is a closer and he’s got good stuff, and the way he kept his composure impresses you.’’
Arrieta has been the most impressive of the starters, going 7-1 with a 1.23 ERA since June 21. He ranks second in the -majors with 19 quality starts.
“Buster [Posey] told me he’s one of the nastiest he’s faced,’’ Montero said. “He said he must be fun to catch. I said he is.’’
Arrieta delivered at the plate, as well. His triple was the second of four Cubs hits, all off Giants starter Jake Peavy (2-5), who struggled in the first inning but lasted through five.
Arrieta scored on Addison Russell’s sacrifice fly.
“The Giants are really good, and its different when you see them in the flesh,’’ Maddon said. “That’s what made these four games so impressive. They have the heart of a champion.
“We’re just playing well now. We’re hitting the ball better overall, catching the ball, though we still have to get the bullpen on firmer ground. Game management this time of year is really important. When you’re playing winning baseball, you do the small things.
“I have all the belief in the world we’ll continue to play this kind of baseball.’’