Cubs look ready to make run to NLDS, where they’d be tough out for Braves

Injuries left the Braves vulnerable to a surge by the Nationals, which happened, but that hasn’t been enough for Washington. The Braves kept winning with spare parts and seem destined to win the National League East again and play the NL Central champions in the NL Division Series.

For a while it looked as if that would be the Cardinals, but it still might be the Cubs.

While the Braves were making a remarkable run with patchwork lineups, the Cubs were doing the same. After the Braves swept the Mets in New York last weekend, the Cubs followed behind them and did the same. The Cubs went from three games behind St. Louis to 1-1/2 and are playing host to the fading Brewers this weekend at Wrigley Field.

I would take the Braves over the Cubs in the NLDS, but the Braves would be better off seeing St. Louis. The Cardinals are a subpar offensive team. The Cubs have been a pretty good offensive team with key hitters on the shelf, and now they are about to get healthier.

“We’ve been waiting to put it all together and be the best version of ourselves, and I think we all know in this clubhouse it has to happen really soon for us to get to where we want to go,” Cubs general manager Theo Epstein told The Chicago Tribune before the Mets series. “It’s that time of year. It’s on us to make that happen.”

Soon after the GM said that, the Cubs started making it happen.

They swept the Mets with their best hitter, Anthony Rizzo, sidelined with back pain. The Cubs scored four runs off Mets ace Jacob deGrom, who hadn’t allowed more than three runs in three months. Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard had been on a great run, but had a career-worst outing against the Cubs. Craig Kimbrel closed two victories and is starting to look like himself after a shaky start following his June signing and a two-week stint on the injured list.

It’s been an up-and-down season for the Cubs. At their best, they’ve used great offense to overcome so-so starting pitching. That’s how Chicago went from three games back to 2-1/2 ahead over two weeks in May. The Cubs did something similar in mid-July and early August.

Chicago’s offense has stayed afloat without some regulars. The Cubs have gotten a career-best season from All-Star catcher Willson Contreras, a bounce-back year by former MVP Kris Bryant and a healthy and productive campaign from ex-Braves outfielder Jason Heyward. Outfielder Nick Castellanos has been great since the Cubs acquired him from the Tigers at the trade deadline.

The Cubs have a realistic chance to generate more offense once some good hitters return to the active roster. The challenge for the Braves has been that so many injuries to outfielders decimated the depth at one position group. The Cubs have been without better players.

Ageless Ben Zobrist, the 2016 World Series MVP, was to be a key utility player this year, but he’s been on personal leave since early May. Contreras went on the IL on Aug. 5 because of a bad hamstring. Rizzo was out of the lineup again Friday, which makes nine total starts that he’s missed this season because of his bothersome back.

Zobrist recently completed a minor-league assignment. Contreras was taking batting practice in New York. Rizzo isn’t expected to be out for long. The timing is right for those guys to return.

Inconsistent offense is why the Cubs faded late last season. Chicago led the Central by 3-1/2 games Sept. 18, but finished in a tie with the Brewers. The Cubs lost a tiebreaker game for the Central title and then lost to the Rockies in the NL wild-card game.

The Cubs have gradually regressed since winning the 2016 World Series. But most of the core pieces from that team are still around. The Cubs might yet have it in them to rediscover their 2016 form once they have all their hitters available. They also would get a big boost if lefty Jon Lester, who was great for them in the past three postseasons, still has something left.

Chicago’s closing schedule is favorable, too. The Cubs face the Cardinals in seven of the last 10 games of the season. There will be plenty of opportunities for a late move up the Central standings. The Cubs will play also-ran opponents in four of six series between now and then.

After the Cubs swept the Mets, FanGraphs put their odds of winning the Central at 50 percent. But that projection assumed what seemed to be a too-low number of plate appearances the rest of the way for Contreras and Zobrist. The Cubs might score better than projected over the final month.

“(Last season) we were susceptible to these long stretches where we lose our identity and were a little more one-dimensional, more vulnerable to certain kinds of pitching,” Epstein told the Tribune. “It’s hard to explain, but we have to be the best version of ourselves. It’s within us.”

The Braves won five of seven games against Chicago this season, but there’s a chance they will see a better version of the Cubs in the NLDS. As I said, I still believe the Braves would win that series. But they’d be a safer bet against St. Louis.