Cubs feel fortunate to still be in Central race

The beleaguered Cubs and their much-maligned lineup beat the White Sox 6-3 to move back into first place by a half-game.

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Chicago Cubs v Chicago White Sox

Jon Lester (8-6) allowed only one earned run in 6 1⁄3 innings to beat the White Sox Saturday night.

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Cubs manager Joe Maddon and team president Theo Epstein spent nearly 40 minutes Saturday afternoon on the South Side addressing a multitude of Cubs sins, slumps, sloppiness and general slippage this season.

Then they beat the White Sox 6-3 and moved back into first place in the National League Central.

And just like that, all was right with the Cubs’ world, and they were on their way to the World Series again.

If you believe that, the Cubs have a great deal for you on a $126 million starting pitcher and a couple of second basemen.

Saturday marked only the Cubs’ second -victory in a week and their third in 10 games.

But because they live in the mild, mild west of the NL Central — when they’re not living in Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito’s head — the Cubs just nudged their trading deadline status back to the buyer side of the fence.

Where they go Sunday in the final game before the All-Star break is anybody’s guess as Kyle Hendricks makes his second start since an earlier-than-expected return from shoulder inflammation Tuesday.

But this much is certain as the Cubs start measuring a second-half sprint in their effort to reach a fifth consecutive postseason: It could be a lot worse.

“We all feel fortunate,” Epstein said of the way the five-team division has clumped en masse right around .500. “If the division had shaken out a little bit differently, we’d be in a much different mindset and probably looking more longer term.

“Right now, we’re looking very short term. We’re looking to claw back into first place and then build a lead and try to win this division and move into October. We’re fortunate no one’s run away with it, and we feel that we are capable of doing that.”

That would seem to make Saturday a substantial first step for the Cubs, who got a quality start from Jon Lester (8-6) and a five-run fifth inning from a recently maligned group of hitters. Not to mention an actual save chance — and save — from their new $43 million closer, Craig Kimbrel.

Buyers indeed.

“We’re not close to anything, but we’re in kind of a proactive stance,” Epstein said. “We’re kind of looking for things we can make happen just because we haven’t been playing that well for a while now. Sometimes you look for things that can spur the team a little bit and you get in a more aggressive stance.”

The comments came three days after Epstein spewed frustration and irritation during his weekly radio hit on the team’s flagship station, including criticism that seeped into manager Joe Maddon’s job performance.

“Ultimately, anything in baseball operations is my responsibility,” he said Saturday, “so if we’re not getting the results that we should be getting in every meaningful way, it begins and ends with me. It’s my job.

“We’re in this together. Look, Joe’s been remarkably effective and remarkably consistent. I’m not going to sit here and say this is on him. My job is to put him in a position to succeed. His job is to put the players in a position to succeed. But when you’re not succeeding, you can’t point at any one thing.” 

Epstein said his biggest surprise, if not disappointment, is sloppiness in the field and on the bases more recently. Maddon said some of that is caused by struggles at the plate contributing to lapses or pressing in other areas.

As for whether that’s on the manager, Epstein again called the causes — and the solutions — matters of and for the collective.

“We’re all asking if we can try some new things and different things and adjust our approaches a little bit,” Epstein said. “[Maddon’s] got a natural curiosity that way. He’s got a growth mindset. He may give off this air of consistency in some ways, but in other ways, he’s trying new things, too, every day, to try to fix it and get it locked in.”

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