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Up, down or sideways? Cubs brace for roller-coaster finish in wide-open NL

Cole Hamels makes his Cubs debut Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH — As the front office worked into the final 24 hours before the trading deadline to add more pitching, the Cubs stood on the brink of what could be their most compelling two-month finish during this four-year competitive run.

Higher expectations than 2015. More playoff-race drama than 2016. None of the “hangover” questions of 2017.

“There are no sure things,” two-time World Series champion Ben Zobrist said. “That’s what makes the game beautiful, right? It’s what makes the game entertaining.”

The Cubs have the best record in the National League as they open a two-game series against the red-hot Pirates with All-Star ace Jon Lester starting Tuesday and big-name newcomer Cole Hamels making his Cubs debut Wednesday.

But nothing has been easy about how they’ve arrived here four months into the season – a prolific lineup going silent for days at a time, and a starting rotation inconsistent all season and missing $126 million free agent for most of it.

If Twitter is any indication, the hand-wringing angst has ratcheted up a notch even from last year’s three-month “hangover.”

“This year especially has been just a straight peak [or] a valley,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the longest-tenured Cub. “There’s been no in-between with the outside noise. Inside here, it’s been a pretty constant ride. But this year has just been a little different [outside] as far as we’re either the best team in the world and we’re going to win the World Series, or we’re the worst team in the world and we should trade everyone.

“That’s the narrative this year. Hopefully, we can change that.”

Maybe the quicker-than-projected rise in 2015 and smooth-sailing championship season in 2016 made it easy to forget all the uncertainty is built into the best-laid plans of even the most talented baseball teams – fueled by the twin letdowns of free agent pitchers Tyler Chatwood and Yu Darvish.

“It was the perfect baseball storm in a sense,” manager Joe Maddon said of all the luck and timing that lined up with the talent in 2016. “And the other part was we took advantage of the moment, too. Windows open and shut, too.

“Had we not done it there at that particular moment it could have been 109, 110, 111 years. It easily could have continued on, regardless of how well we’re perceived right now.”

No matter how smart the front office or how talented or prepared.

What’s almost certain this time around, though, is that in a wide-open National League, the injury-hampered, flawed, first-place Cubs look like they’re not getting off their roller coaster anytime soon this season.


• Jon Lester offers social-media advice after ‘too many young guys getting burned’

As deadline looms, do Cubs need to make another trade to win in October?

Another deep October run? A close second and no October at all?

Neither finish would be hard to fathom with two months to go.

Talk about entertainment.

“That’s why people love watching, because people don’t know what’s going to happen,” Zobrist said.

With every rise and fall of thumb-typing emotion that goes with it.

“There’s no gimmes in this game,” Zobrist said. “I think everybody in the clubhouse recognizes that. I think everybody feels that we’re in good position. But we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. We also recognize there’s a lot of work to be done.”