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Cubs hit road with breathing room in NL Central

@MLBastian
July 21, 2019

CHICAGO -- The Cubs opted to take more of a macro view of their loss to the Padres on Sunday afternoon. It was undoubtedly a setback, but it was one that came at the tail end of a successful homestand that tamed some of the troubled waters that existed heading

CHICAGO -- The Cubs opted to take more of a macro view of their loss to the Padres on Sunday afternoon. It was undoubtedly a setback, but it was one that came at the tail end of a successful homestand that tamed some of the troubled waters that existed heading into the All-Star break.

The 5-1 defeat at Wrigley Field concluded a run of seven wins in nine games since the season's intermission, helping the National League Central-leading Cubs create a little bit of breathing room atop the division. That was important, especially given that the two teams right behind them -- the Brewers and Cardinals -- are on the schedule for the upcoming, three-city road trip. The Cubs are two games ahead of the second-place Brewers and 2 1/2 games in front of the third-place Cards.

Box score

"I'll sign for it any day of the week," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of the homestand. "We won seven games. That's my takeaway. There's still parts of the game we have to get better at -- there's no question. But, I love the fight. I love the fight a lot. The energy's been really good.

"There's so many good intangible things going on, but we still need to clean a couple things up."

During Maddon's tenure in Chicago, the Cubs have built a reputation as one of the game's best second-half teams. Across the 2015-18 campaigns, Chicago rattled off an MLB-high 189 wins after the All-Star break. St. Louis was the next-best NL team, with 164. The Cubs posted a .647 winning percentage after the break in that time period, compared to a .556 mark in the first half.

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With that in mind, this recent 7-2 run has a familiar feel for the North Siders.

"The mindset's there. Everything's good in the clubhouse," Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks said. "We can't rely on what we've done in the past, but it's a really good feel right now."

Here are a few takeaways from the homestand as the Cubs embark on a nine-game, 11-day trip through San Francisco, Milwaukee and St. Louis:

Pitching sets the tone

Earlier this season, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein remarked that the team could not keep relying on successful homestands to overcome poor showings on the road. That, however, is precisely what happened again.

Chicago went 3-6 in road games against the Reds, Pirates and White Sox before the break, dropping the Cubs' record to 18-27 away from Wrigley Field this season. That is a dramatic difference from the North Siders' 36-18 mark at the Friendly Confines.

The problem is pretty easy to spot.

"We need to pitch better on the road," Maddon said.

Indeed, the Cubs have actually scored more runs per game on the road (5.3) than at home (4.9) but have turned in a 4.97 ERA away from Wrigley. Even with five runs allowed on Sunday -- two by Hendricks and three charged to the bullpen -- the Cubs have a 3.35 ERA in front of their home crowd this year.

During this nine-game homestand, the Cubs' rotation led the way with a 3.62 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 54 strikeouts against nine walks in 54 2/3 innings.

"It starts with us on the mound with making good pitches," said Hendricks, who turned in the Cubs' seventh quality start of the homestand with his seven innings against the Padres. "So, set the tone on the road, be aggressive the same way we've been doing here, and, hopefully, turn that around."

Trades looming?

During a second-inning battle with Padres slugger Hunter Renfroe, Hendricks fired a trio of pitches over the outer edge of the strike zone. That included a curveball, a sinker and a changeup. Renfroe took all three for a swift strikeout.

Catcher Martín Maldonado -- acquired via trade on Monday from the Royals -- presented the pitches beautifully, and Hendricks took notice. Maldonado's reputation as an elite pitch framer played a role in Chicago reeling him in to help shore up the depth around starter Willson Contreras and backup Victor Caratini.

"Willy and Caratini are coming along just like that. They're getting really close," Hendricks said. "But, no, you could definitely see it. [Maldonado] was really good. It was a great target. Rode it in. I think he got me a couple pitches today."

Acquiring Maldonado checked the catching-depth box on the Cubs' to-do list. Last month, Chicago filled its biggest and most obvious need by signing free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel to a blockbuster contract. On the homestand, Kimbrel started to look more like himself and collected four saves in five appearances. His velocity ticked up and he trimmed his ERA from 12.21 to 5.19.

Before the next homestand arrives, the Cubs will be looking to make more upgrades prior to the July 31 Trade Deadline. That date is especially important this year, considering there is no longer an August trading period. That is a big reason why a depth move such as adding Maldonado took place this early in the baseball calendar.

Adding some offense and targeting an impact left-handed reliever are items on the Cubs' wish list.

"I know we've been talking about different things, obviously," Maddon said. "Until it actually occurs, you don't know, because it takes two to tango. But, there's different areas that we do need to firm up -- we know that. Everybody knows that. So, we've been talking."

Bench needs a boost

Veteran Daniel Descalso came off the bench in the eighth inning to face San Diego's Cal Quantrill, who logged 5 2/3 shutout innings. Maddon liked the matchup, but Descalso flied out to center field for the second out in the frame.

Over the past month, Descalso has started two games, made nine pinch-hit appearances, played in 12 games total and has gone 2-for-16 in the batter's box. That is not how the Cubs envisioned the utility man's season going when they signed him to a two-year, $5 million contract over the offseason.

Maddon admitted that it has been challenging to keep the struggling Descalso involved.

"No question. It is difficult, but he makes it less difficult. He's a professional," Maddon said. "He's always working. He talks to everybody. He's there to support everybody else."

The rare Descalso sighting came a day after Addison Russell had a rough day on the basepaths and in the field. Maddon has also been trying to get the likes of Albert Almora Jr., David Bote and Russell going against left-handed pitching. Switch-hitter Robel Garcia -- a second baseman by trade -- has been working out at third base and started a game in left field on Saturday.

Needless to say, one area the Cubs could upgrade their roster is on the bench. Ian Happ remains an option at Triple-A Iowa, and Chicago is exploring the trade market for other potential solutions. On Sunday, for example, a report by the Detroit News noted that the Cubs have Tigers outfielder Nicholas Castellanos on their radar.

"The front office, they'll go out and do whatever we need to go out and win," Hendricks said. "We trust in that. So, we just do our job. We come in every day, do our work and focus on winning with what we have right now. We love our group, and we know we're fine as is.

"But, if something comes, then we'll embrace him, he'll fit right into the environment and we'll look forward to it."

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.