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First half empty or second half full? Cubs win, embrace the break

Albert Almora Jr. celebrates with teammates Javy Baez and John Lackey after hitting a two-run homer off Jonathon Niese in the fourth inning Sunday. | Gene J. Puskar/AP

PITTSBURGH – There might not be another team in baseball that needs the All-Star break more than the Cubs.

Or one that might get less impact from it.

Even in their first victory in nearly a week – 6-5 over the Pirates on Sunday – the Cubs showed the fatigue and starting pitching problems that have plagued them throughout their 6-15 slide into the break.

“There’s no question we could use a break – we could have used a break 12, 13 games ago,” said Ben Zobrist, one of a major-league-high seven-man contingent from the Cubs headed to San Diego for Tuesday’s All-Star Game. “That would have done wonders I think for this team.”

For now they’ll settle for the victory that All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo called “as close to must win” as they’ve played this season – coming at the end of a stretch of 24 games in 24 days.

“We’re going to the break now with our heads up,” said Rizzo, who finished the first half with consecutive 4-for-5 performances, including four doubles and a triple. ”We can exhale a little bit and take these four mental days off and relax.”

The Cubs snapped a season-high five-game losing streak Sunday with just their second victory in 11 games, and the schedule out of the break doesn’t get easier – starting with the American League West-leading Rangers, followed by a Mets team that swept the Cubs a week ago.

And it’s at least debatable just how much of a break seven of their best players will get by the time they’re done with the two days of All-Star obligations and round trip travel to the West Coast – creating what amounts to 26 game days in a row.

“I think it’s more of a mental break that we need,” said Kris Bryant, the two-time All-Star who drove in Sunday’s winning run with a two-out single in the eighth. “The All-Star Game’s going to be fun. We’re going to be playing in it, but it’s still a mental break for us because there’s no pressure to go out there and perform or do any of that. We’re just going to enjoy the time.”

Is that going to be enough for an admittedly fatigued, banged-up team to recharge?

“We’ll find out,” said Zobrist.

The Cubs say they’re happy with the 7-game lead over the Cardinals they take to the break.

“If you told us at the beginning of the year we’d be in this position I think any of us would take it,” said Bryant.

But Sunday’s win and an overall good first half can’t hide the fact they’ve lost four games off their lead to the Cardinals in 11 days – and 7 ½ games to the Pirates in that span. Or the fact they’ve lost five of six to those teams the last three weeks.

This is a team that even after starter John Lackey’s six innings showed the strain of struggling rotation. He gave up five runs and didn’t get a decision, leaving the starting staff without a quality start in 10 games this month.

The once-vaunted rotation’s ERA during the 21-game skid is 6.05.

If the Cubs learned one thing in 88 games about their season-long mission to “embrace the target,” it’s that they’ve drawn the wrath of every team in the league, and that they can expect the target to get brighter – and the race to get hotter – in the second half.

“I think we’ve responded really well, and more recently we’ve done it with less than our normal group,” Maddon said. “I do believe fatigue entered into the equation [lately], which happens to everybody. … I think our starters hit a little bit of a wall.

“And everybody’s coming after us hard, man. Everybody is. And I love that. And what we went through right now is going to be really beneficial to us in the second half.”

If the pitching turns around. If the bodies heal. If the break makes a difference.

“The first half we’ve set ourselves up well for the second half to do what we want to do,” Rizzo said. “Every game now in the Central, especially vs. the Cardinals and the Pirates, are going to be playoff games from here on out.”

Lackey, who has made two World Series-clinching starts in his career, had an early flight to catch and wasn’t available to media after Sunday’s game. But he left a solitary, opened can of beer in his locker stall.

Which may have provided the one big question for this team as it headed to the break: half empty or half full?