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Watch out, LA and DC: The Cubs are surging

MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- It's good to have hops.

Jason Heyward showed his against the Cardinals on Sunday night, leaping straight up to spear a 102-mph liner from the Cards' Tommy Pham. His Cubs are likewise, showing their hops, even if they did lose to the White Sox, 3-1, on Monday in the first game of Chicago's crosstown series.

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CHICAGO -- It's good to have hops.

Jason Heyward showed his against the Cardinals on Sunday night, leaping straight up to spear a 102-mph liner from the Cards' Tommy Pham. His Cubs are likewise, showing their hops, even if they did lose to the White Sox, 3-1, on Monday in the first game of Chicago's crosstown series.

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"Sometimes you have to find another way,'' Heyward said.

Heyward was talking about his catch, but he could have been referencing his team.

After burying the National League Central en route to 103 regular-season wins and a World Series championship last season, the Cubs bred optimism elsewhere by running in place in the first half of 2017. They're hitting stride now and believe they can return to familiar surroundings in October via a different route.

"No two seasons are ever the same," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I've always believed that. I knew this year wasn't going to be like last year. We'd have to find a different path. We knew that in Spring Training, although we didn't know exactly what we'd face.''

It is looking like Theo Epstein's All-Star break acquisition of Jose Quintana could be a master stroke. Since Quintana joined the Cubs carrying a White Sox equipment bag, his new teammates are looking a lot like their old selves, with an 8-2 record since the All-Star break.

Video: STL@CHC: Quintana fans seven over six strong frames

They passed the Brewers for first place by percentage points in the NL Central on Sunday -- gaining 5 1/2 games in seven days -- but slipped back to second when Miguel Gonzalez and the South Siders beat them Monday afternoon.

Any team is going to have days like this, but we'll be once again talking about them as one of three super teams in the NL if they keep the arrow pointed upward a little longer.

"We all understand in this clubhouse it's an exciting time,'' Heyward said. "It's the second half, we're playing for the playoffs and the division race is close. It's exciting. It's where you want to be. … It's fun. Embrace that.''

The Cubs' 43-45 first half is going to make it difficult to get beyond 90 wins, but their presence alongside fellow NL powerhouses in the Dodgers and Nationals could set up a riveting postseason. The NL Central champ will almost certainly face one of those two teams in the NL Divisional Series, with the other team lurking in the NL Championship Series.

While the Brewers have stumbled since reaching a high-water mark of 11 games over .500, they are plenty dangerous. Milwaukee general manager David Stearns knew there would be valleys ahead for his young team, and the Brewers slid into one just as the Cubs were getting a lift from the acquisition of Quintana.

It's likely the Brew Crew will bring in pitching reinforcements, but the moves won't be based on the Cubs' surge.

"Just because something changes one day doesn't mean we're going to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything," Brewers assistant GM Matt Arnold told MLB.com Sunday. "We're not going to try to overcorrect. That's one thing we have to be aware of in all of this, is to make sure we don't overcorrect to short responses."

Blessed with an abundance of health and across-the-board production in 2016, the Cubs were a mess for most of the first half. But they hit stride sweeping the Orioles in Baltimore and the Braves in Atlanta, and they followed it up by winning two out of three against the Cardinals over the weekend.

Video: STL@CHC: Davis retires Kelly to pick up the save

Wrigley Field has been buzzing with sellout, short-sleeve crowds, with seemingly nine out of every 10 fans wearing World Series gear.

"We're spoiled every night and every day with our fans here at Wrigley,'' said Heyward, who lately has been taking his turn in the revolving leadoff spot.

The Cubs have outscored the opposition 57-34 in 10 second-half games, with the run differential reflecting what they had last season. They've hit 19 home runs, but the most impressive improvement has been the run prevention.

The Cubs' starting rotation has a 2.39 ERA in the second half, and the lockdown defense has returned, too. Despite early problems, especially with their outfield defense, the Cubs have moved up the board to No. 4 in MLB.com's Defensive Efficiency ranking of all 30 teams.

Heyward points to shortstop Addison Russell as the biggest key to the improved consistency in the field. Russell started only 65 of 88 games in the first half, but he was there for eight of the first nine games in the second-half surge.

Video: STL@CHC: Cubs relay cuts down Carpenter at the plate

"It's just good to be comfortable out there defensively,'' Heyward said. "It's good to know, to have reps with who you're playing next to, things like that. Having [Russell] back at short after his time out makes a difference for us.''

Getting starters Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey off the disabled list has also provided a lift. Hendricks wasn't great on Monday in his first start since June 4, but he was able to use his fingers for the grips he uses to manipulate pitches, feeling no ill effects from the injury to his middle finger.

Along with the Quintana trade, the return of Hendricks and Lackey gives Maddon the best rotation he's had in his three seasons with the Cubs.

Nobody is going to want to run up against Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Quintana and Hendricks in a postseason series. Not even the Dodgers or Nationals.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com.

Chicago Cubs