ST. LOUIS -- The top of the National League Central has remained congested for four months this season. Sitting in the visitors' dugout at Busch Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, Cubs manager Joe Maddon reiterated his belief that no one team looks poised to start separating from the pack.
"Just being honest," Maddon said.
That stance was further strengthened in the wake of the Cubs' 2-1 loss to the Cardinals, who now sit alone atop the division, one game ahead of Chicago. That marked the 12th one-run loss on the road this season for the North Siders and dropped the Cubs' record to 2-5 with two games left in this three-city swing through San Francisco, Milwaukee and St. Louis.
The Brewers are one game behind the Cubs after falling in Oakland late Tuesday night.
Maddon has been insisting for months that it will take a heightened offensive approach -- improved situational hitting, better organization of the strike zone and an opposite-field mentality -- for the Cubs to be the team that pulls away from the rest of the Central. Tuesday's showing, which included 10 stranded runners, only highlighted his point.
"I've been talking about that for two months now, maybe," Maddon said. "It's nothing new."
Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward did not necessarily disagree, but he also has a slightly different take on the current landscape of the Central.
"You can't sit here and try to hang your hat on looking for separation," Heyward said. "You've just got to keep playing, keep trying to win, because if you keep trying to look for a 10-game lead or whatever, it's a longer year than it is. That's not the kind of division it is this year. This is real."
Heyward rattled off a few seasons from the recent past for reference.
One was the 2011 campaign, when a 90-win Cardinals team won the World Series as a Wild Card winner. Last year, the Brewers took home the division crown by one game. In '15, three games separated the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs. It took 91 games to win the division in '09 (Cardinals), 85 in '07 (Cubs) and 83 in '06 (Cardinals).
"That's probably what this is going to be like," Heyward said. "The division's that good. You've just got to call it what it is."
Tuesday's loss was a familiar one for the 2019 Cubs.
Chicago received a strong pitching performance from Yu Darvish, who struck out nine and walked none over six innings. A wild pitch allowed a runner to score from third in the fourth, and Paul Goldschmidt launched a go-ahead home run in the sixth. The blast was the seventh in the past eight games for St. Louis' first baseman, who has tormented the Cubs over his career.
"Right now, he's a monster," Darvish said.
Chicago's lone run against veteran Adam Wainwright came in the fourth, when Heyward singled sharply to the wall in right and eventually scored on a base hit by Javier Báez. Heyward also led off the sixth with a single, but he was caught stealing on the same full-count pitch from Wainwright that resulted in a strikeout of Kris Bryant. The Cubs then loaded the bases with two outs, but came up empty.
"We had opportunities tonight. We just didn't take advantage of them," Maddon said. "That is kind of where we're stuck. We've got to get beyond that."
The Central is not going to get any easier, either.
Shortly after Tuesday's loss, Maddon saw a group of players gathered around a device, watching highlights of the Reds' brawl with the Pirates in Cincinnati. In the middle of the fracas was Yasiel Puig, as reports swirled that he was included in a blockbuster trade between the Indians, Padres and Reds. The centerpiece of the deal is Trevor Bauer heading to the Reds' rotation.
"They just traded for Trevor Bauer,” Heyward said. “That's the name of the game. And you've got to respect it. ... It's another guy who's been there and proven. Another good arm. But, I'm just saying in general, just pointing out, they're real in this."
As Wednesday's 3 p.m. CT Trade Deadline looms, the Cubs are also seeing what moves might be possible to help address some of their own shortcomings, too.
Chicago has labored against left-handed pitching. There has been a revolving door at the leadoff spot. Maddon keeps mixing and matching at second base and in the outfield. The bullpen has received some reinforcements over the past few days and weeks -- Craig Kimbrel, Derek Holland and David Phelps -- but could still use some additional help.
"I know the guys are hunkered down like everybody else is," Maddon said of the Cubs' front-office leaders. "That's what everybody does right now. We'll look for the white smoke. If it appears, we'll know something occurred. Otherwise, we'll just keep going with what we got."