August is the cruelest month in baseball.
April and May provide an invigorating start to the season, June offers a run-up to the end of the first half, July provides the All-Star break and the non-waiver trade deadline and September puts the stakes in focus for contending teams — and the finish line in sight for also-rans.
But August is only grit and grind, and sometimes it dangles fool’s gold in the form of a big lead that can soothe like a blanket of false security.
The 1969 Cubs had an 8½-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and a 9½-game lead over the New York Mets in mid-August.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon learned long ago how to handle August.
‘‘Even as a minor-league coordinator, I told the coaches and managers that when it came to August, stop the extra work and just let them play.’’
He already is employing that strategy, with players required to get to the park only a few hours before game time.
‘‘I want them to rest,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘I want them to show up later. I want them to do less. I want them to just come and play the game.
‘‘They can still do their mental stuff as much as they want, whatever their routine is. But I prefer physically they do less work. That’s the part that concerns me.
‘‘When somebody is fatigued and you try to make changes, a productive conversation becomes more difficult. So back off. Let them play. Keep them fresh. I think you benefit.’’
Maddon had his regulars back in the lineup Saturday against the Cardinals, a day after some of the bench players gave them a day off in a lopsided 13-2 victory.
The Cubs lost 8-4, their first defeat of the month after an 11-game winning streak. But it felt more like a bump in the road than a detour.
‘‘We’re still rolling and feeling good as a group,’’ said right-hander Kyle Hendricks, who matched his career high with 12 strikeouts in seven innings. ‘‘At this point in the year, how well we’re playing and where we’re at, you’re going to lose some games. You just go back out the next time and try to start another [streak].’’
The loss went to rookie Carl Edwards Jr. (0-1), who at times has dazzled but still is learning.
With the score tied 2-2, Edwards got Greg Garcia to line out to start the eighth before allowing two walks and a single to load the bases. He then struck out Yadier Molina, but the third strike was a wild pitch that allowed the tiebreaking run to score. Edwards followed by walking two more batters before Maddon summoned Joe Smith, who served up a grand slam to Randal Grichuk that gave the Cardinals an 8-2 lead.
The Cubs had a chance to break the game open after Addison Russell’s two-run home run in the second. But they left the bases loaded when Kris Bryant grounded out to end the inning, then had only four other baserunners until scoring twice in the ninth.
‘‘That’s an example of what the team looks like without [injured reliever Pedro] Strop,’’ Maddon said of using Edwards in the eighth. ‘‘Regardless, [Edwards] has been outstanding. He lost his command there. He had a bad day, but I like him a lot. If he gets out of it, it’s another lesson learned.’’
August is also for learning, even for a team with the best record in baseball (73-42) and a 13-game division lead.
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