MILWAUKEE — Four games stand between the Milwaukee Brewers and the National League's second wild card spot, currently held by the Chicago Cubs.
And with the Cubs set to open a four-game series against the Brewers Thursday night at Miller Park, it is easy to look at this as a winner-take-all showdown.
Brewers manager Craig Counsell, however, knows it's a big series and his team's playoff chances are riding on a good showing but understands that regardless of what happens, there is still a lot of baseball to play.
"There's more than four (games) to play, there are 20-some games to play," Counsell said Tuesday night after the Brewers beat Houston 4-2 at Miller Park. "We want meaningful games after this and there's gonna be."
"We've got to win games. The Cubs aren't the only team in this thing. They're one of the teams we have to beat and this is a chance to do it head to head."
And while a sweep won't clinch a postseason berth for the Brewers, a poor showing this weekend would essentially eliminate any remaining hope Milwaukee has of returning to the playoffs.
"It's a four-game series and those four games mean everything," first baseman Eric Thames said. "We just have to stay strong because we're close to getting in there."
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The Brewers took two of three games from the Cubs last weekend at Wrigley Field, bouncing back from a 7-1 loss in the opener to win 2-0 on Saturday and 4-0 on Sunday. Brewers pitchers followed that up by allowing just five runs in a two-game split with the AL West-leading Astros, who are battling the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in baseball.
"We've played four good baseball games," Counsell said. "We've played really well. We've pitched outstanding. Good defense. We've played good. We've got to keep doing that. That's how you rack up wins. It's a big series this weekend, a big chance, a big opportunity for us. If we play like this, you like our chances to win games."
Once again, the Cubs will send left-hander Jose Quintana to the mound for the series opener. Quintana struck out three over 5⅔ innings against Milwaukee last Friday. Left-hander Cole Hamels, who took a hard-luck loss in Game 2 of the series, and right-hander Yu Darvish, who was scratched from his start last Sunday, are scheduled to pitch Friday and Saturday, respectively. Right-hander Kyle Hendricks is slated to start the series finale for Chicago.
Counsell will open the series with the same three starters he used in Chicago: right-handers Chase Anderson and Zach Davies, followed by left-hander Gio Gonzalez. Right-hander Adrian Houser is scheduled to pitch on Sunday.
Continuing a season-long theme, Milwaukee's offense has been struggling during this stretch of good baseball, especially with runners in scoring position. The Brewers stranded 28 batters and went 4-for-29 with runners in scoring position against the Cubs last weekend. Milwaukee has stranded 42 runners while going 7-for-47 with runners in scoring position over the last five games overall.
That aforementioned string of good starts — save for Anderson's blow-up outing in the series opener at Chicago — has helped keep games close and the Brewers have also benefited from some lock-down performances from the bullpen, which has combined for a 1.19 ERA over the last five games and held the Cubs to just a run while striking out 16 over 14⅓ innings last weekend.
Mix in a strong defensive effort and the Brewers have been as close to clicking on all cylinders as they've been this season.
"We've done a good job," Counsell said.