By Chris Emma

By Chris Emma—

CHICAGO (CBS) – Superstitions have returned to the club box behind home plate, where Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and his baseball brass ride out this stretch run.

Epstein has done his part with this Cubs team, ensuring depth throughout the lineup, a rotation with six viable options and a bullpen boasting various weapons for Joe Maddon to utilize. Now, all he can do is watch, wait and force director of baseball operations Scott Harris to eat cake. For every clutch hit or big out needed, Harris will abide by the superstition.

The Cubs opened a three-game set with the rival Cardinals on Friday leading the NL Central by three games. Chicago is looking to separate from St. Louis and Milwaukee, which have both come on lately to keep the race tight.

A year ago Friday, the Cubs had already clinched the division. Now, Harris is packing on the cake calories.

“My favorite pennant race is the one where you’re sitting in the bleachers on September 16,” Epstein joked before Friday’s game. “I kind of like those.”

As the Cubs manhandled the Mets for three games at Wrigley Field earlier this week, they prepared ahead for the stretch run. Thursday’s game featured the Triple-A Iowa Cubs’ battery of starter Jen-Ho Tseng and catcher Taylor Davis, which offered left-hander Mike Montgomery rest for a move to the bullpen and kept catcher Willson Contreras fresh. With the benefit of big leads against the Mets, Maddon dispatched the September call-ups to help keep his players fresh, though Montgomery still came on in relief.

Starting Friday, it’s a different game for Maddon and the Cubs. They play 11 of their last 16 games against the Cardinals and Brewers to finish the season. Through these final two weeks, the Cubs are looking to find themselves ahead of the postseason.

“We’re trying to rope-a-dope,” Maddon said. “The Ali Shuffle needs to be incorporated here right now a little bit.”

Maddon is ready to work his A-team lineup in these final weeks. Ben Zobrist is clicking lately in the lead-off spot, followed by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. He has worked Contreras lightly while getting him back to the form he showed before suffering a hamstring injury in early August.

Kyle Schwarber has mostly worked in a platoon basis against right-handed pitchers and will come out of games late for a defensive replacement. Rookie Ian Happ has worked into all three outfield positions and second base, and Jason Heyward has hit toward the bottom while manning right field. Javier Baez will be Mr. Versatile again once Addison Russell returns from the disabled list.

As the Cubs work toward the postseason, Maddon must make those difficult decisions to what gives his Cubs their best chance to go deep again. There are some key questions at hand. Should Russell be the playoff shortstop over Baez, and who takes second base? Does Heyward bring enough at the plate to warrant being more than a defensive replacement? Is the Zobrist of September the player whom Maddon can expect come October?

Of course, the lineup and those late-game situations are the least of the Cubs’ worries right now. Getting right-hander Jake Arrieta back healthy is of the utmost importance, creating a steady five-man rotation for the final two weeks. Meanwhile, the bullpen is currently taxed – even with the expanded rosters.

Maddon is planning to use closer Wade Davis for some four-out or even two-inning saves ahead. But while working to evaluate the potential bullpen options for October, he first must keep players from wearing down. They’ve already lost reliever Hector Rondon for the time being due to inflammation in his right arm, and Epstein said Justin Wilson is working through some issues, too.

Maddon would love to plan a postseason lineup in the back of his mind and think of those late-game defensive replacements and bullpen matchups, but the Cubs are currently in a battle.

“Theory and reality have to come together,” Maddon said.

The Cubs can stand confident in their experience from the last two years and place as the defending World Series champions, but they move toward October as a relative underdog compared to teams like the Dodgers, Nationals, Indians and Astros.

This has been a different season for the Cubs compared to last. Circumstances have been a bit more difficult, but their hope is to find form before the postseason arrives.

First, they must get there, because this has been anything but cake walk.

“We have to do a lot of things to get where we want to go,” Epstein said. “We’re in a tight race. We need to hit good pitching. We’re going to face a lot of good pitching the rest of the way. We got to hit good pitching. We have to keep our starters going and get them deep into the game, and we have to straighten our bullpen out.

“Look, any time you’re in a situation where you have a very small margin for error – whether it’s in a postseason series or a pennant race or a postseason game – it adds to the risk, it adds to the reward.”

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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