ST. LOUIS — About 20 minutes after the Brewers lost Sunday afternoon, giving the Cubs the best record in the National League, Cubs manager Joe Maddon was asked if he had an idea yet how good his team might be in relation to the rest of the league.
“I think we’re as good as anybody,” Maddon said. “I feel strongly about where we’re at.”
A few hours later, the Cubs were shut out for the third time in five games, this time a 5-0 loss that prevented a sweep of the Cardinals and left them exactly where they started when their six-game trip to Milwaukee and St. Louis began — a half-game behind the first-place Brewers.
When asked after the game about winning the series, Maddon reached across his desk and clicked on his favorite Meat Loaf standby.
“We’ll take two out of three any day of the week,” he said, “especially in this ballpark.”
After managing only four hits in their seventh shutout loss of the season, the Cubs feel good about where they’re at?
They could find out quickly.
After splitting six games against their top two rivals in the National League Central, the Cubs face the defending NL champion Dodgers in seven of their next 11 games.
Despite 11 players currently on the disabled list, including ace Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers are 11-3 this month after having their five-game winning streak snapped with a loss to the Giants on Sunday.
“Obviously, they righted the ship after a slow start, which I think everybody probably thought they would,” said Cubs closer Brandon Morrow, who was the Dodgers’ top setup man last season. “And they’re going to get those [injured] guys back, too. Then watch out, probably.”
The seven games with the Dodgers come during a stretch of 17 games in 17 days that will take the Cubs to the halfway mark of the season and into July.
Trending in their favor is a rotation that has begun to pitch to expectations the last three weeks, including Sunday’s starter, Jose Quintana, who matched Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty in a scoreless duel into the sixth on a humid, 94-degree night.
Quintana gave up back-to-back singles to open the sixth and was pulled at 86 pitches, and the two runners eventually scored to tag him with the loss.
Quintana (6-5) has allowed two runs or fewer in his last four starts and eight of his last 10.
The rotation’s ERA is 2.74 in the last 19 games, boosted significantly by Jon Lester’s All-Star-caliber pitching and Mike Montgomery’s performance in his four starts (1.14 ERA) since taking over for the injured Yu Darvish.
The Cubs are 13-6 in that stretch, even with the loss Sunday.
“That’s where it starts,” starter Kyle Hendricks said. “We set the tone. We know it’s been an up-and-down battle all year. It’s just bringing it all together and going on a run, all five of us at one time. . . . It’s close. It’s right there.”
That will get tested in the Cubs’ longest stretch of games without a day off.
So will the Cubs’ feast-or-famine lineup, especially against a Dodgers rotation that has the fifth-best ERA in the majors despite the injuries. And the NLCS rematch comes just eight months after the Dodgers’ staff stifled the Cubs in five games.
That led to staff changes that included bringing in hitting coach Chili Davis and an emphasis this year on situational hitting and finding ways to score without hitting a home run.
“I feel strongly about where we’re at,” Maddon said. “Milwaukee’s good. These [Cardinals] are good. Our division’s good. That’s nice to play in a strong division.
“Once we see the Dodgers and Nationals [late in the season], I’ll have a better idea.”