By Bruce Levine--
CHICAGO (CBS) -- After a laugher of an NL Central race was more or less decided by midseason in 2016, the Cubs have had to scrap for every victory possible in 2017 in an effort to defend their division crown.
And while many will say the Cubs haven't met expectations as they entered play Saturday at 64-57 with a 1.5-game division lead, they're embracing the competition of the tight race.
"This is exciting," third baseman Kris Bryant said. "We wish we had a bigger lead and so do the fans. We wish we were running away with it. But to have four teams in it should be a lot of fun. This should be a lot of fun to cover for you (media members). We just have to go out there and play our game. There is plenty of baseball to play. It would be nice to go on a Dodger run. Seasons are not always perfect. This has not been a perfect season for us."
Protecting a precarious division lead each day can sometimes help teams band together and become battled tested. Such is what the Cubs hope happens down the stretch this season.
"We knew this would be a tighter race coming in," reliever Pedro Strop said. "When teams play us, they know they are facing the champions. They automatically play better and get up for those games. We need to play each game and concentrate on that game only."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon tries to utilize a consistent approach each season regardless of how close the race is, though he acknowledges there are times he must manage differently based on the situation.
"I did press the issue in a series against the Giants two years ago -- pitching changes early and that stuff and it did (work)," Maddon said of Chicago's four-game sweep of San Francisco in August 2015 that started a Cubs surge down the stretch.
"The fact that we have done (won in a close competition) before matters. The only thing that can get in the way is injuries. We are trying to guard against that. I see the guys getting into it. (Javier) Baez is trending. (Kris) Bryant was real hot. I think (Anthony) Rizzo is going to really go on a strong streak. You just have to have the personnel to do it."
The Cubs have some of baseball's best talent, which along with a championship last season gives them a quiet confidence even if they haven't reached their potential yet.
"Our guys are all on the same page," Strop said. "The fact that things have not gone the way people wanted it to go is not a problem for us. We are realistic. People watching forget how hard the playoff was for us. We battled, fell behind and then came back. Baseball is about competing and making sure you never stop competing. Other teams are playing better, so we need to play better ourselves if we want to get to where we want to go again."
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.
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