CINCINNATI — The fight was over before it started in the eighth inning Saturday.
But the fireworks in the National League Central might just be starting after the Cubs’ 6-0 victory against the Reds at Great American Ball Park.
It at least got a little more personal when Cubs reliever Pedro Strop attempted to explain Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig’s reaction to being hit on the butt by a 3-0 pitch in the eighth.
‘‘It’s not a secret he’s stupid,’’ Strop said. ‘‘He’s stupid as f---. I mean, I have nothing against him, but he’s stupid. There’s no doubt about it.’’
That’s certainly one possible explanation for Puig creating a benches-clearing incident by stepping toward the mound and yelling with his team trailing by five and, by both accounts, no history between the players to suggest intent.
‘‘I told him, ‘Why are you talking?’ ’’ Strop said of his side of the shouting match as the combatants were restrained by other players, the burly Puig held back by the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras. ‘‘ ‘You’ve got a chance to just come and do whatever you need to do on the mound. So now you’re just screaming.’ He just acted stupid. I don’t know.’’
Whether the incident or Strop’s postgame analysis will lead to an escalation during the series finale Sunday, these teams have 10 more meetings after that to jockey for the last word during what promises to be a wild five-team scrum in the NL Central.
The most tightly packed division in the majors is separated by only 6½ games top to bottom, even after the first-place team beat the last-place team, which has won five of their eight meetings so far.
‘‘I anticipate this tight kind of a setup the whole season,’’ manager Joe Maddon said.
Maybe that’s part of the tension that has seemed to bubble to the surface more frequently lately.
The Cubs had a six-game losing streak in the first week of the season and a seven-game winning streak a month later. They have been mediocre in June and have occupied every spot in the NL Central standings this season, falling as far as 5½ games out and never holding a lead of more than 2½ games.
Three times already this season, the Cubs have lost their hottest starting pitcher to an injury, including left-hander Cole Hamels (oblique) on Friday. That made left-hander Jose Quintana’s bounce-back start and first victory since May 5 especially significant.
‘‘We need it,’’ Quintana (5-7) said of his six innings. ‘‘Especially with me. I needed an outing like that.’’
He had been 0-4 with a 6.75 ERA in his previous six starts.
‘‘This kind of a season is just one of us trying to keep fighting for some stability,’’ said outfielder Jason Heyward, whose solo home run against Reds right-hander Luis Castillo in the second was the sum of the Cubs’ scoring until Javy Baez’s grand slam in the eighth. ‘‘It’s not going to be perfect. Some people are going to get hurt. We’re playing hard. We’re playing in a tough division. It’s a battle, but we’re going to try to stay afloat. And we know we can hang in any ballgame, any time, any day.’’
Maybe all that grind and fight and the tightly packed division have something to do with the benches-clearing incidents that have involved the Cubs in three of their last six series, including their last two.
Or maybe Strop’s analysis is closer to the reason for at least one of those.
‘‘The guy has got the ball,’’ Puig said. ‘‘He throws the ball [at] me. What am I supposed to do? Do nothing? . . . The lesson today is nothing happened. Nobody got hurt for the moment.’’
Either way, the message is clear: Buckle up for the rest of this ride.