Cardinals Mariners Baseball

St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong, left, reaches for the ball before tagging out Seattle Mariners’ Dylan Moore at second on a stolen-base attempt during the second inning of a baseball game Wednesday in Seattle.

PITTSBURGH — Joe Maddon didn’t let the free time created by a rare ejection go to waste.

Shortly after getting tossed by home plate umpire Joe West on July 4 following an outburst in which the Chicago Cubs manager appeared ready to take on any and all comers from the Pittsburgh dugout after taking exception to the way the Pirates kept pitching up and in to his players,

Maddon retired to the visiting manager’s office at PNC Park. He eased into a chair, opened a bottle of wine, flipped on the television and watched his wildly uneven team put the finishing touches on an 11-3 victory that avoided a four-game sweep.

Veteran move. Opportunities to relax over the next two-plus months will be scarce in the most competitive division in the majors.

The National League Central enters the second half with the first-place Cubs and last-place Cincinnati separated by just 4½ games, an outlier during an otherwise yawn-inducing first half in which five divisions reached the All-Star break with at least a 5½-game gap between first and second.

There are no front-runners in the NL Central. No room to breathe either, something Maddon saw coming long ago.

“I’ve been talking about this for the last two years how teams are getting better in our division,” Maddon said.

“It’s not going to go away. It’s going to be really difficult to really separate.”

That’s exactly what the Reds had in mind when they retooled over the winter in an effort to stop a streak of four straight 90-loss seasons. Cincinnati upgraded its starting rotation over the winter, added swagger when it acquired outfielder Yaisel Puig from the Los Angeles Dodgers and overcame a shaky 1-8 start to stay within striking distance in a division,

Maybe, but that will require one team in the Central finding a way to get the better of the other four on a consistent basis. That didn’t happen in the first half. Milwaukee is the only NL Central team with a winning record within the division (24-18) but has been unable to create any separation.

“It doesn’t make me comfortable that we’ve been spotty,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “The division, we haven’t, nobody has jumped out. Somebody will.”

And leaves each team with some interesting decisions to make as the trade deadline approaches.

The resilient Pirates entered the break just 2½ games behind the Cubs despite having 80% of its starting rotation spend time on the injured list at some point. All-Star first baseman Josh Bell’s breakout season has helped.