Blame the neighbors: Cubs couldn't dominate stronger NL Central

CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward needed to make a point. Reporters were bombarding him with questions as to why his team's offense was so schizophrenic and how they were dealing with those pesky Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs haven't been able to shake them -- or the rest of the National League, for that matter -- even though they've been in sole possession of first place since July 12.

"I just want to point out, we have the best record in the NL, and we haven't clinched yet," Heyward said Tuesday afternoon before the Cubs lost 6-0 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. "That shows you how good our division is. That shows you how good this league is. It's time to pay respect to how good these other teams have been playing baseball."

Heyward makes total sense, but how many Cubs fans want to hear how good the other team is while their team seems to be falling apart? Still, if it's a reality worth exploring, then maybe it can explain the Cubs' inconsistency, as well as the whole league this year. The NL Central, in particular, is as underrated as it comes. With the mighty Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees ruling the AL East, one might think that division is baseball's best, but only the NL Central would wind up with three playoff teams if the season ended today.

"I've been talking about that all year," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Teams have gotten good quickly."

Maddon isn't making that up. He first talked of parity in the division in April. Everyone knew the Brewers were good, but the St. Louis Cardinals have had a resurgence under new manager Mike Shildt, and the Cincinnati Reds have played much better since Jim Riggleman took over. They swept the Cubs in a four-game series earlier this year.

And then there's the Pirates. In the previous five games against the Cubs prior to Tuesday, they had given up a single run in each. They bettered that by shutting out the Cubs at Wrigley on Tuesday. Some of that is on the Cubs' offense, which has been mediocre since the All-Star break, and some of it is on the competition.

"Who doesn't throw 95 mph anymore?" Maddon asked. "That's hard to deal with in the batter's box."

The Cubs haven't dealt with higher velocity very well -- or lower kinds, either. Their offense has tanked in the second half, ranking 11th in the National League in OPS and 12th in runs scored per game (just under four runs). They ranked first in the NL in both stats before the break.

"The part that's been up and down, or awkward, has been the offensive side of the ball, which we thought we would be more consistent with," Maddon said.

Now isn't the time to analyze what has gone wrong -- that will come in the offseason. The best the Cubs can do is continue to win some ugly games and hope October is kind to them. The problem is, they're playing in their own division to finish the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, NL Central teams had a .552 win percentage outside their division this season heading into Tuesday's action. That's by far the best in the NL and the second-best interdivisional record in baseball behind that of the AL West.

"The NL Central is an absolutely loaded division," infielder Tommy La Stella said. "Everyone has been beating up on each other throughout the whole year. ... It says a lot about our guys. It hasn't jelled for us all as a group, collectively, this year, but we've still found ways to be successful to win games."

But is that success coming to an end in the final week? The Brewers are rolling, and the Cubs have lost the first two games of their series against the Pirates, reducing their lead to just a half-game over Milwaukee. Their offense continues to be a weak link, despite the addition of Daniel Murphy last month.

"Guys are putting in the effort, putting in the work," Anthony Rizzo said. "There is no lack of effort."

Rizzo was reminded by a reporter that it hasn't been easy to put away the other contenders in the division.

"If it was, I think you guys would be doing it too, right?" he responded. "We knew it wasn't going to be easy. This week won't be any different than previous weeks we played."

Rizzo could not be more right. The Brewers are finishing with a flurry, thanks to a dynamic offense, while the Cubs are still trying to find their second-half groove at the plate. They say pitching and defense win championships, but run scoring wins games. The Cubs are lacking and have been for a while.

"More than anything, the part of our game that hasn't been familiar to us has been offensively," Maddon said. "The rest of the game has been pretty familiar."

It might not be enough. Strong competition within the division combined with a putrid offense simply might do the Cubs in. Can they find what it takes to avoid a one-game wild card? The next few days will tell.

"It would be nice to hit our stride right about this time," La Stella said.