A pennant race has no official starting date, but this week's two-game miniseries at Wrigley Field between the Cubs and Brewers seems like a logical place to kick things off.
They've been neck-and-neck all year and really for the last two seasons. The Cubs hold a three-game lead in the NL Central.
The flashy, free-spending Cubs are more adept at playing the role of favorites, knowing they have more talent and a better track record. The upstart Brewers are professional agitators who thrive on being overlooked.
It's a new twist on a classic matchup: Goliath vs. racing sausages.
So cue the Rolling Stones and start it up.
Hipster Joe Maddon matches wits with the tragically unhip Craig Counsell. You couldn't find two more diverse personalities than the showy Maddon and the laid-back Counsell, who famously threw shade at Cubs management in 2017 for calling a game on what turned out to be a sunny day: "It's the first time for us that we've had players treated for sunburn after a rainout." Both are handling difficult situations with aplomb. Maddon is without two key players in Kris Bryant and closer Brandon Morrow, not to mention Yu Darvish. Counsell's rotation is suspect, Zach Davies is still rehabbing and Counsell has had to keep the clubhouse together after Josh Hader's old racist tweets were revealed. The Cubs are 8-3 against the Brewers in the season series with eight games remaining.
On Tuesday, it's Jhouys Chacin vs. Jose Quintana. Wednesday: Junior Guerra vs. Kyle Hendricks. Chacin (11-4, 3.91 ERA) was one of the best free-agent signings of the offseason and has been the Brewers' most reliable starter. But Quintana is 2-0 with an 0.95 ERA against the Brewers this season and 4-1 with a 0.92 ERA in seven career starts against them. Guerra is 0-2 with a 5.46 ERA over his last five starts, while Hendricks has an 8.25 ERA in the first innings of his 24 starts.
Yin and yang
The Cubs, regulars on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," are coming off a wild, 4-3 victory Sunday on David Bote's walk-off grand slam. The last time the Brewers were featured on the Sunday game of the week was Sept. 22, 2013, against the Cardinals.
Since they last met on June 13 at Miller Park, the Cubs added a new starter in Cole Hamels and a few new relievers, including Jesse Chavez, Brandon Kintzler and Jorge De La Rosa. The Brewers stockpiled on offense at the trade deadline, acquiring Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop, while dumping Brad Miller and sending Tyler Saladino to the minors. They also traded for White Sox closer Joakim Soria, who served up a ninth-inning grand slam in a crushing loss last week and wound up on the 10-day disabled list with a groin strain the next day.
The 'freak' play
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Lorenzo Cain pulled off the signature moment of the series on June 12 at Miller Park, described by Christian Yelich as the "freak" play. Yelich was caught in a rundown between second and third on Cain's grounder to short, so Cain ran toward second and directed Yelich to go back to the bag. Cain then zoomed back to first, which Anthony Rizzo had abandoned, leaving both runners safe and Brewers fans roaring in laughter watching the Cubs get faked out of their shoes. Counsell called Cain's trickery "flat-out brilliant."
Pedro Strop has been the Cubs closer in Morrow's absence, going 7-for-8 in save situations since July 19. Corey Knebel has been ineffective for the Brewers and seems likely to be replaced by Hader, who continues to dominate. The Brewers bullpen looks tired, but Kintzler also looked shaky in his last two outings against the Nationals, his former team. Cubs starter Mike Montgomery also is available out of the bullpen in case Maddon needs a reliable lefty to face left-handed-hitters Yelich or Travis Shaw late in a game.
Slugger Jesus Aguilar is seldom mentioned in MVP talk. But if the Brewers win the division and finish with the best record in the league, Aguilar should at least be a finalist. Javier Baez is gaining momentum, and in two nationally televised games over the weekend, Baez's MVP chances were boosted by the Fox Sports and ESPN broadcast crews. Even Fox reporter Ken Rosenthal, the most powerful writer in the Baseball Writers Association of America, reluctantly admitted Baez was his MVP choice after being prodded by analyst A.J. Pierzynski. Rosenthal added it's too early to choose an MVP, but Baez clearly is the favorite among the media elite.
No one loves coming to Wrigley Field more than Ryan Braun, who is fueled by the nonstop booing he receives during every at-bat. Braun has 15 home runs and 63 RBI in 77 career games at Wrigley, with a .943 slugging percentage. He loves Cubs pitching wherever he hits, with 33 homers and 120 RBIs in 163 career games against them. "It's always a place I've enjoyed playing, obviously," Braun told me in 2016. "It's challenging as an opponent, but as a competitor, I just embrace that atmosphere, that environment. Definitely challenging but also a lot of fun. That being said, I don't worry about things that are out of my control." Maybe Braun can pass on the approach to Hader, who figures to receive the same harsh treatment if he gets in a game.
Davies threw 86 pitches in his fourth rehab start Saturday and probably will have at least one more outing before returning to the Brewers. He'll be with the team in Chicago for this series, and it should provide the Brewers a psychological boost at the very least. Bryant, Morrow and Darvish have yet to begin their respective rehab stints but should return by September when the race really heats up.
Last year the race went down to the wire when the Cubs won three of four at Miller Park on Sept. 21-24 to increase their division lead to 5 1/2 games. After this series, the Cubs and Brewers meet six more times, from Sept. 3-6 in Miller Park and Sept. 10-12 at Wrigley Field.
The Cubs have David Bote on their roster. The Brewers do not.