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Trade bores: Can Cubs make big second-half push without outside help?

Jon Jay celebrates with teammates after Thursday's dramatic 5-4 win over the Nationals. He hit the go-ahead two-run double with two outs in the ninth.

WASHINGTON — Maybe this was a first step toward the kind of three-week run that inspires the Cubs’ front office to rethink its trade-deadline posture.

Or maybe it was just another step forward — albeit a dramatic one — before another step or two back.

The only thing for sure about the Cubs’ big two-out comeback in the ninth inning Thursday is that it kept them just one game behind the first-place Brewers in the National League Central. And it helped keep hope alive after three months of mediocrity and uncertainty.

“The record and the way we’ve been playing is not ideal,” starter Jon Lester said after the three-run rally against the Nationals’ dismal bullpen gave the Cubs a 5-4 victory and a series split against the NL East leaders.

“But at the end of the day, we’re one game out. We’re one [good day] away from being in first place. That’s what you’re playing for during the season is to make the playoffs.

“No matter how you get in, it really doesn’t matter. You try to find a way to get in.”

But how they’re playing and how it looks matters a lot as the front office approaches the next month leading to the trade deadline.

The Cubs are one game over .500 with an underperforming starting rotation, underperforming lineup and four key players sidelined, including reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant with a day-to-day ankle sprain.

Even Bryant’s backup for the day, rookie Jeimer Candelario, left in extreme pain after starting the ninth-inning rally by getting hit on the inside of his left knee with a fastball.

X-rays were negative, but Candelario was still in visible pain as the medical staff worked on him after the game.

Candelario

So how does the front office weigh the costs and risks against the rewards on the eve of July during a more complicated 2017 season?

“I do think how this team plays makes a difference in terms of how aggressive you’re going to be at the deadline,” Hoyer said. “There are seasons like last year, when we felt like the team had played so exceptionally well, we had one hole that we wanted to fill, and we aggressively filled it.

“You want to be aggressive every year because it means your team is playing that well,” he added. “But if your team isn’t playing at that level, you do have to look at the future at some point and say whenever we make these deals we know we’re giving up part of the future for now.

“You have to assess now all the time.”

For the most part “now” stinks for these Cubs, especially in relation to their lofty expectations.

But with Ben Zobrist and Bryant expected back in a matter of days — and Kyle Hendricks and Jason Heyward not far behind — maybe July won’t stink. And maybe August and/or September will even be big.

It’s no secret the Cubs plan to pursue starting pitching in July, just as they did during the winter and last summer. That focus has been almost exclusively on controllable starters who can backfill for the anticipated free agent losses of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey.

Hoyer would not talk about specific targets or available players in the system. But if the Cubs had the wherewithal to land a Chris Archer or a Sonny Gray — as opposed to say a Mike Montgomery or an Eddie Butler — those deals would have been made by now.

“I really believe the answers are in the clubhouse,” Hoyer said. “In large part this group won the World Series last year, and I think so many guys in that clubhouse have the ability to have big second halves, with far more [impact] than a trade changing a team.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Former Cubs manager Dusty Baker was ejected for the first time in a year and a half as Nats manager.

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