ST. LOUIS -- It isn't easy to repeat as World Series champions, or even get to the postseason in back-to-back seasons. The last National League team to repeat as World Series champs was the Reds in 1975-76.
"If I learned anything from the two previous times it's that it's tiring," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said about having a team play in the postseason. "You put so much of yourself out there nightly to accomplish that, and the residue is that it takes a part of you away from you.
"What I learned was to be patient and emphasize not pushing too hard too quickly," said Maddon, who has made giving players rest a priority this season.
That extra month of baseball most likely accounted for the Cubs' slow start this year. They were 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central at the All-Star break. A win on Tuesday over the Cardinals would have given Chicago its second division title in a row, but the party was delayed following an 8-7 loss.
"It's tiring playing that extra month," the Cubs' Kris Bryant said. "There were times I was completely beat, just physically, mentally. You'd expect the World Series winner to be in the playoffs every year and it hasn't been the case. Hopefully, we can break that."
The Cubs have won 11 of their last 14 games, and 19 of their last 28.
"You cannot ask for a better time to start playing your best baseball of the year," Maddon said. "Fortunately, we're in a division that permitted that to happen. Right now, our guys, you watch them in the clubhouse and in the dugout, that look is back, that focus, that concentration is at its highest point among the whole group. You have to be there to understand it. I've seen groups with it and groups without it, and our group has it."
The Cubs have had some tough series this month to tune up for the postseason, including a three-game series against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field from Sept. 15-17, and a four-game set in Milwaukee that ended Sunday.
"When the other team provides that competition, it brings out the best in us," Bryant said. "We know the other guys are trying as hard as us. When those games come, it's what we've been able to do is put our foot on the gas and beat them. It's been an impressive [stretch]."
• Heading into Tuesday's game, Bryant led the NL with a 6.8 WAR, according to Fangraphs, and was trailing only the Yankees' Aaron Judge and the Astros' Jose Altuve for the top spot. What's interesting is that Bryant's RBI numbers are down compared to last season.
"I guess when you look at that, RBI is a nice stat, and it's been there for 100 years or however long the game has been played, but when you look at the advance [sabermetrics] stuff, maybe it doesn't mean as much," Bryant said. "I take pride in being a complete player and doing everything I can, baserunning, defense, and I think all of that goes into all these new numbers. It's just a byproduct of me wanting to be that complete player."
What Bryant is happy about is that he's reduced the number of strikeouts from his rookie year, when he fanned 199 times. He's struck out 126 times this season.
"It's just at-bats, better contact, more hits with two strikes," Bryant said. "It makes me really proud that I've been able to do that."
• On Monday, Bryant hit his 29th home run, a solo shot in the second inning. Someone at Busch Stadium accidentally set off the fireworks, which are typically reserved for the home team's players.
"I didn't realize it until I got to the dugout," Bryant said. "That was really funny, though. I'm sure it was accidental. It's a long season for those guys, too. It's all right. It was an honest mistake."
• Cubs catcher Victor Caratini finally got word from a cousin that his family was all right in Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by Hurricane Maria.
"He said all of my family is good and safe," Caratini said Tuesday.
Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.