|NL Central lead at stake as Cubs visit Brewers|
The most competitive division race in the 2017 MLB regular season thus far is taking place in the National League Central Division.
After appearing to sleepwalk through much of the first half, the defending champion Chicago Cubs are on top once again. However, three teams are within just 4.5 games of the lead.
This weekend, the Cubbies travel just about two hours up I-94 to Miller Park in Milwaukee. Waiting for them will be the NL Central’s second place team, the host Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers actually led the division for much of the season. The Brew Crew jumped into first place on May 17, and until this past Wednesday had spent just two days out of the top spot ever since.
The Cubs, meanwhile, were suffering from a serious World Series victory hangover. By the end of May they were two games under .500 and sitting in third place. As late as July 9, the Cubs were still those same two games below the break-even mark.
However, something clicked for Chicago coming out of the MLB All-Star Game break. The Cubs have won 11 of 13 games since taking those four days off. Conversely, Milwaukee has lost nine of their last 11 contests.
Headed into the weekend, the Cubs hold a 1.5 game lead on the second place Brewers in the division standings. That lead is three games in the loss column. There is no doubt that this series in front of their home crowd is of vital importance to manager Craig Counsell and his ball club.
Milwaukee needs to get back on track, and fast. This is a perfect opportunity to let the Cubs know that they intend to stay in the race for the long haul.
For the Cubs, it’s a chance to stay hot and begin to put Milwaukee further back in the rear view mirror. The champs are looking to make a statement: we’re back, and now we’re going to pull away.
The weekend starting pitching match-ups are scheduled as follows:
FRIDAY: Jose Quintana (6-8, 4.22 ERA) vs Brent Suter (1-1, 2.84 ERA)
SATURDAY: Kyle Hendricks (4-3, 3.95 ERA) vs Junior Guerra (1-4, 5.22 ERA)
SUNDAY: John Lackey (7-9, 4.97 ERA) vs Zach Davies (12-4, 4.45 ERA)
Quintana was a big trade acquisition two weeks ago from the AL’s crosstown Chicago White Sox. He has been fantastic in his first two Cubs starts, winning both. Suter began the year pitching out of the Brewers bullpen, but started July in the rotation. He has not allowed more than two earned runs since, and three of his four outings were of the Quality Start variety.
Last year’s third place finisher in the NL Cy Young Award vote, Hendricks is fresh off a seven-week stint on the Disabled List. He surrendered eight hits and lasted just 4.1 innings in his first start back earlier this week. Guerra was a pleasant surprise a year ago, emerging as a reliable starter at age 31 after bouncing around the minor leagues for a decade. But this season, MLB hitters appear to have caught up with him. He hasn’t reached the fifth inning in four of his last five starts.
The 38-year old Lackey is the senior member of the Cubs rotation. Now in his 15th big league season, the righty has just seven Quality Starts among his 19 turns so far this year. Davies is a 24-year old who is emerging as a reliable mid-rotation option. He got banged around by the Cubs back in April, but then beat them with a solid effort earlier this month at Wrigley Field.
Milwaukee is seventh and Chicago just 14th in baseball in runs scored this season. However, the Cubs recent hot streak has been spurred largely by an offensive awakening. The North Siders have scored seven, nine, and 10 runs once each and put eight runs on the board three times since the All-Star break. They are averaging exactly six runs per game in that time.
The Brewers hold a slight edge in OPS at .768-.763 for the season. On the basepaths, however, it’s no contest. Milwaukee has stolen 87 bases, tops in all of Major League Baseball. The Cubs are way down at 25th with just 37 bags swiped.
On the mound, the Cubs hold the edge. The Chicago staff has a .237 Batting Average Against, fourth in the game. Milwaukee’s staff at .259 ranks just 18th in the game. In both WHIP (1.27-1.38) and K/BB ratio (2.53-2.35) the Cubs staff holds the edge.
The Cubs are coming off a four game home-and-home with the Chisox in which they won the final three games to capture the 2017 “Crosstown Cup” trophy. They have won five of the nine games against the Brewers so far this season.
This are two teams who have begun heading in opposite directions. The Cubs are on the rise, the Brewers are falling. It’s something that many believed was inevitable. Now it’s up to the Brewers to answer the Cubs challenge. After this, the two teams won’t meet again until the second week in September.