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Pirates, Brewers and Cardinals, oh, my!

Are Cubs symptomatic of lame National League Central, or is flawed division the cure for what’s ailing them?

Pittsburgh Pirates vs Chicago Cubs
Kris Bryant scores the go-ahead run ahead of the tag by Jacob Stallings in the eighth inning Friday. The Cubs beat the Pirates 4-3.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Grueling? Tough? Competitive?

Or mediocre, meek and mild?

The National League Central added up to almost anything and everything someone might call it, as the five teams went into the break separated top to bottom by a mere — and unprecedented — 4½ games.

“You’ve got to feel fortunate,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s a cannibalistic kind of division.”

That might yet prove to be true, but for now it looks more like five hearty meals for the fine young cannibals at the top of the other divisions.

Consider that the NL Central’s combined record at the break outside the division was 133-132.

And it’s worse than that when considering that mark includes a 16-7 record against the NL-worst Marlins.

Worse yet for the Cubs: They’re done with the Marlins after going 6-1 against them, while the Brewers (four), Pirates (three) and Reds (four) have 11 games left against them.

Also not so good for the Cubs: The Brewers, who are closest to the Cubs atop the division, had the only winning division record (24-18) at the break. The Cubs went 15-16.

But eternal Cubs optimists can cling to at least a few glimmers of second-half hope:

The Cubs don’t play another game this season against a team that was in first place at the break. They went 6-11 against the Braves, Dodgers and Astros in the first half.

Their .647 winning percentage in the second half under Maddon the last four years is by far the best in the majors during that stretch.

And they have more games left against division opponents (45) than anyone else in the division, meaning how they finish is disproportionately up to them.

For whatever that last point might be worth by late September.

“To be in the spot we’re in, it’s not horrible,” Maddon said. “And I know we’re going to play better.”

HIDDEN FIGURES

$138M

Cubs’ 2019 payroll committed to pitching, which is more than the average total payroll in the majors and more than the entire combined payrolls of the Rays and Orioles.

0

Homegrown pitchers developed during the eighth-year front office’s regime who were on the roster as the second half began.

.227

Cubs hitting with men in scoring position (94-for-415) since

Ben Zobrist left the team for family reasons in early May, compared to .284 (76-for-268) in 32 games with him.

.400

Cubs’ road winning percentage (18-27). Only the Mets (.354) are worse in the National League.

DID YOU KNOW?

• Heading into the All-Star break, only three NL teams had hit more batters than the Pirates (40), and only four NL teams were hit by more pitches than the Cubs (42). After getting ejected over his anger at the Pirates’ practices July 4 and going after their bench, manager Joe Maddon was told the teams were to meet again immediately after the break. “I can’t wait,” he said. “I cannot wait.”

• Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel’s second-half ERA (1.70), WHIP (0.89) and strikeout rate (15.1 per nine innings) are all better than his career first-half numbers, with the ERA lower by nearly half a point.

THAT’S WHAT HE SAID

“Front offices go on hot streaks, too. And can go in slumps. Sometimes you get in those stretches, just like the team on the field, where you go through a Murphy’s Law period where everything that seemingly can go wrong goes wrong.” — Cubs president Theo Epstein

“I don’t think anybody in the clubhouse is worried about where we’re at. We’ve just got to dig ourselves [out]. … The outside noise, the panic and all that other stuff won’t affect us.” — Cubs ace Jon Lester, who makes his first start of the second half Saturday against the Pirates

“You’re going to see a better brand of all this in the second half.” — Cubs Manager Joe Maddon