CHICAGO (AP) While a bunch of teams are fighting for playoff spots all over baseball, the Chicago Cubs are feeling their way through rare territory.
The Cubs clinched the NL Central title a full three weeks before their first playoff game, giving the organization plenty of time to rest players and analyze possible postseason opponents, but also making for a tricky stretch when it comes to staying sharp when there isn't as much at stake.
After the Cubs dropped three of four against the Brewers last weekend, manager Joe Maddon met with his hitters before Monday night's 5-2 victory over Cincinnati and talked to them about making the most of the final part of the season.
''It's unusual being in this position like we are right now,'' Maddon said after the meeting. ''So you've got two weeks of baseball, major league baseball, left in September, so let's work on some stuff. Let's work on things that we need to work on individually or as a group. Like I said, not unlike a spring training situation, while within the context we're just going out there playing the same game, we're trying to win this game.''
The Cubs' win over the Reds and the Nationals' loss at Miami made it a seven-game lead for Chicago over Washington in the race for home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. The Mets, Cardinals and Giants are fighting for the two wild cards, making one of them the likely division series opponent for Maddon & Co.
''I probably will watch Washington more than anything right now,'' Maddon said. ''That's the one that we're shooting for, is to have the best record.''
While the wild cards likely will go down to the final few days of the season, the Cubs will have organizational meetings Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss possible playoff matchups and how they might line up for each series. They have scouts watching each potential postseason opponent.
''Each team presents its own set of challenges and might have roster implications one way or another, too,'' president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said.
The Cubs also are planning for their four-day break between the end of the regular season and their playoff opener on Oct. 7, which Maddon also covered in his meeting with the hitters.
''That's a long time, so we have to really get our minds right over the next couple, three weeks to really be prepared properly for that first game,'' Maddon said, ''and I wanted it to start today.''
Epstein said the Cubs are considering having a simulated game during the four-day break before Game 1 of the Division Series, providing a chance for the starters and relievers to get some work in and for the hitters to see live pitching.
The 42-year-old Epstein has never been in a situation like this before, with the team clinching so early, but said he likes it compared to the alternative.
''I think it's what you make of it,'' he said. ''To me, it's a lot better than having to push your guys extra hard and put more innings on guys' arms and not giving them enough rest and then maybe waking up and being worn down.''
Chicago had to wait until Sept. 25 to clinch its 2015 wild card, and then made it all the way to the NL Championship Series before it was swept by New York.
The early clinch also allows the Cubs to go as slow as they want with any players with health issues. Maddon said outfielder Jorge Soler, who left Friday's 5-4 victory over the Brewers with tightness on his right side, could be available to pinch hit on Tuesday. Key reliever Pedro Strop, who is coming back from knee and groin injuries, is on track to pitch in a simulated game soon.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap