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Albert Almora Jr. (5) celebrating with teammates after he drove in the winning run in Tuesday’s ninth inning.

Can Cubs bury Pirates, Cardinals before summer takes hold?

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Here’s the thing about the Cubs’ 9½-game lead in the National League Central: It’s really big.

You want trenchant analysis? There it is, folks.

But let’s talk about how big it really is. Since baseball went from four divisions to six beginning with the 1994 season, no Central team has rubbed the sleep out of its eyes on June 16, as the Cubs did Thursday, with a bigger lead.

Matter of fact, no N.L. East or N.L. West team has, either.

An N.L. team hasn’t enjoyed a lead so large on June 16 since the 2006 Mets were out in front in the East by 9½ games. The 1993 Phillies led what then was the East division by 9½ games.

We all surely remember the regular-season success of the 2001 Mariners. In mid-June of 2001, Seattle — on its way to 116 wins, the most in American League history — was 52-14 and led the A.L. West by a still-unbelievable 20 games.

By comparison, the Cubs’ lead looks almost puny. Of course, it is anything but that.

With the third-place Pirates and second-place Cardinals set to visit Wrigley Field for a six-game Cubs homestand that starts Friday, the question hangs over home plate like a meatball: Can the Cubs essentially end the division race before summer takes hold?

Or have they already done that? Perhaps they have.

It’s worth pointing out that the 2006 Mets lost in the NLCS, the 2001 Mariners lost in the ALCS and the 1993 Phillies lost the World Series on a walk-off home run by Toronto’s Joe Carter. Those three terrific teams won division titles that became somewhat empty victories. That’s a long way to say it doesn’t matter, in the biggest of pictures, how easily the Cubs rip through the Central.

Yet the Cubs’ lead is, to this point, historic by N.L. standards. It’s not the whole picture, but it sure is striking.

THREE UP/DOWN

Up: What’s not to like about Albert Almora Jr.? He has appeared in eight games with the Cubs, delivered clutch hits and flashed eye-opening defensive ability. This is a huge homestand for the 22-year-old outfielder, who is trying to force the Cubs to keep him in the big leagues after Jorge Soler and Tommy La Stella recover from hamstring injuries.

Down: The trouble Cubs relievers had in Washington, where closer Hector Rondon blew back-to-back save opportunities, put the spotlight on a bullpen that has been better than most yet isn’t elite. The bullpens of the Nationals, Mets and Dodgers — all potential October opponents — have been stronger.

Up: In his first 249 at-bats of his 2015 N.L. Rookie of the Year season, Kris Bryant had 10 home runs, 43 RBIs and 41 runs scored. Through 249 at-bats this season, his numbers have risen to 15, 45 and 48, respectively. Probably even better: Bryant’s strikeouts are way down, from 88 to 64.

Then again, Bryant’s strikeout rate is up in June from its April and May levels. Something to keep an eye on.

1 THROUGH 9

1. Cubs: After the surge of playoff-like intensity in Washington, they should be ready for the Pirates and Cardinals.

2. Nationals: The Cubs’ four-game sweep at Wrigley seems so long ago now.

3. Rangers: They’ve won eight consecutive series, going 19-6 in the process. Other than that, it’s a real mess.

4. Giants: They’re rolling right now, but there’s still concern about the rotation after Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto.

5. Red Sox: In a nutshell, everybody’s hitting over .300 and heading to the All-Star Game.

6. Orioles: Is Manny Machado the best player in baseball? Somebody has to at least ask the question.

7. Blue Jays: Their strong play on the road is keeping them squarely in contention in the A.L. East.

8. Mets: The second-best pitching staff in baseball has kicked it into high gear. Noah Syndergaard: Cy Young dark horse.

9. Royals: At home, they’re one of the best teams in baseball. On the road, they’ve repeatedly fallen apart. What gives?

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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