After split in Miami, how prepared are Cubs for Nationals exposure?

SHARE After split in Miami, how prepared are Cubs for Nationals exposure?
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Cubs need to “keep the floaties on,” during tough stretch, Maddon said.

MIAMI — As their dance with mediocrity has stretched into late June, the Cubs have clung fiercely to the mediocrity of the rest of their division.

With just more than half the season to play, the National League wild-card race is disappearing into the horizon of the NL West like a setting sun.

But the defending World Series champs still have the NL Central, where they trail the first-place Brewers by 1½ games after losing 4-2 on Sunday to the Marlins.

‘‘The biggest thing is to keep the floaties on until we get this thing right,’’ manager Joe Maddon said.

That figures to get especially tough this week, when the Cubs venture back into the deep end of the NL pool with four games against manager Dusty Baker’s East-leading Nationals in Washington.

‘‘It’s going to be a great test,’’ reigning MVP Kris Bryant said.

It’s also a glimpse into the first-round playoff matchup the Cubs would face if they win the Central and the Nationals remain in their current position.

‘‘We know where they’re at, and we know we could see them down the line,’’ said left-hander Mike Montgomery, who allowed three unearned runs in the first inning before blanking the Marlins for the rest of his six-inning stint. ‘‘We know they’ve got a great team, and we’re looking forward to playing them.’’

The Cubs will enter the middle series of their longest road trip of the season when they get to Washington. They haven’t won back-to-back games on the road since April, and their lineup has been ravaged by minor injuries (Ben Zobrist’s wrist, Jason Heyward’s hand) and seasonlong slumps (Kyle Schwarber was optioned to the minors Thursday).

The Nationals, meanwhile, have the top-performing lineup in the NL and will send three potential All-Stars — left-hander Gio Gonzalez and right-handers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg — to the mound in the first three games against the Cubs.

‘‘They’re obviously a really good team, and they’ve got some guys having some really good years,’’ Bryant said. ‘‘Obviously, they’re going to make a nice postseason push. It’ll be nice to see where we’re at against them.’’

<em>Bryant</em>

Bryant

If there’s optimism for the Cubs, it comes from their pitching. The bullpen has performed well all season, and the starters have pitched closer to their 2016 level in the last two weeks. Montgomery’s six innings without allowing an earned run lowered the rotation’s collective ERA to 2.30 in the last 12 games, and the Cubs allowed only six earned runs in 34 innings (1.59 ERA) in the four games in Miami.

‘‘I’d be very happy with continuing to pitch this way [in Washington],’’ Maddon said.

More erratic play cost the Cubs a chance to win the series.

A fielding error by shortstop Addison Russell on leadoff man Ichiro Suzuki’s spinning hopper in the first led to the three unearned runs. Russell left because of an unrelated shoulder injury in the fourth and is day-to-day.

Later, a mental error by Willson Contreras — who entered the game in Russell’s lineup spot — cost the Cubs a chance to score in the seventh, when the score was 3-2. He missed a hit-and-run sign, and Ian Happ — who had singled — easily was thrown out at second.

Contreras followed with a walk and took second on a single by Miguel Montero, but Tommy La Stella grounded into an inning-

ending double play. Giancarlo Stanton then homered against Pedro Strop in the bottom of the inning to make it 4-2.

‘‘The mental mistakes are the only things that upset me,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘Physical mistakes don’t bother me, but mental mistakes do.’’

The Cubs might not be ready to take off the floaties yet, but they have the comfort of their own division for now.

‘‘We’re still right there,’’ Maddon said. ‘‘As we get back to playing like we can, I’m happy to be there.’’

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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