The Milwaukee Brewers head to Wrigley Field on Monday riding an eight-game winning streak but facing a team that stands as Milwaukee's biggest competition for the National League Central title: the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs have been sneaky good all year, with a plus-79 run differential that stands third in the National League behind only the Braves and the Dodgers, plus two all-stars headlining the rotation in Justin Steele and Marcus Stroman. Though the pitching has still been up and down, the Cubs have come roaring back from a 26-36 record June 8 to a team that's now 70-61 and four games back of the Brewers in the division.
If the season ended today, the Cubs would hold the No. 2 wild-card spot, a half-game ahead of the No. 3 spot (Arizona).
The series promises to have significant intrigue, but it could also be just the appetizer for a series between the two teams over the final three days of the season at American Family Field (or heck, a playoff series after that). Here's what stands out about the battle:
The pitching matchups between the Cubs and Brewers this week
Tuesday: RHP Corbin Burnes (9-6, 3.65 ERA) vs. Justin Steele (14-3, 2.80 ERA)
Another tough left-hander against the Brewers, but that's not as dire as you'd think
We're not going to tell you the Brewers have been objectively great against left-handers all season long, but would it surprise you to know that they've been top 10 in Major League Baseball against left-handed pitchers since June 15, in terms of wRC+, which is a stat that attempts to judge how good a team is at creating runs?
They're actually seventh in batting average and ninth in on-base percentage against lefties since June 15.
The bigger problem is the success Steele has had against Milwaukee in his career. The 28-year-old has a 2.48 ERA in 12 games (10 starts) vs. the Brewers, with 61 strikeouts and six homers allowed in 54 1/3 innings. He's allowed three runs in 12 innings against Milwaukee this year. His 2.80 ERA ranks him second among qualified starters.
But Steele also hasn't worked past the sixth very often and has given up multiple runs in each of his August starts (4.13 ERA in five starts).
The other pitchers Milwaukee face have struggled. Taillon has greatly struggled in recent outings, allowing 14 earned runs over his last three starts (14 2/3 innings). His ERA in August is 6.08. Hendricks has a 5.00 ERA this month, though a bad start against Atlanta on Aug. 4 has a lot to do with it; he's been steadier since.
An injury that has sidelined Stroman indefinitely has complicated Chicago's starting picture. The bullpen seems to have found a star in closer Adbert Alzolay and has been a top-tier unit since the middle of summer, but it isn't quite as good as Milwaukee's.
Led by these four guys, the offense has been superb for Chicago
Cody Bellinger isn't going to win the National League Most Valuable Player award; that's likely to wind up in the hands of Ronald Acuña, Freddie Freeman or Mookie Betts. But Bellinger is making a case as the best free-agent signing of the offseason when he agreed to a one-year deal worth $17.5 million to try and rehabilitate his MVP form.
The outfielder who won the 2019 MVP over Christian Yelich has made a case again in 2023, and about the only thing holding him back is that he missed a month with a bruised knee. Through the weekend, he had a .914 OPS and .321 batting average, with 20 homers, 23 doubles, 75 RBIs and 18 stolen bases. He had five RBIs on Sunday in Chicago's win over Pittsburgh.
The Cubs made a number of offseason signings, and certainly not all of them worked. But Bellinger and shortstop Dansby Swanson, whose 3.8 WAR according to Fangraphs puts him atop of the list of all players signed to free-agent deals this offseason (even ahead of Aaron Judge).
Swanson wasn't cheap; he signed for seven years and $177 million, but he's got a quality .758 OPS with 19 homers, and he's one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, with both Fangraphs and Statcast viewing him as the best.
Then, there's the newest Cub, Jeimer Candelario, who was possibly the top offensive player who changed teams at the trade deadline. The former Washington Nationals third baseman has been even better since coming over the Chicago, with an .894 OPS and .370 on-base percentage. Candelario will join Bellinger as a free agent in the offseason.
Seiya Suzuki, meanwhile, has gotten white hot, riding a 10-game hitting streak in which he's had multiple hits six times. Suzuki's OPS for the season had dipped to .717 by July 3, but it's back to .786. During his hitting streak, he's got a staggering seven doubles, a triple and two homers, with 18 hits in 40 at-bats (.450 batting average).
The Brewers are playing for a precious tiebreaker
Remember Game 163 at Wrigley Field to close the 2018 season? It was unforgettable, but it's not happening again.
As a reminder, Major League Baseball has done away with one-game playoffs to determine playoff standing and deferred to a series of tiebreakers. Chief among them is head-to-head; the Brewers and Cubs will meet 13 times this year, so somebody is coming away with an edge. Right now, Milwaukee has a tenuous 4-3 lead with six games to play. Obviously, the Brewers will want to split those six games to claim dibs in case the two teams wind up tied at the end of the year.
Hoo boy, the last three games of the year could be huge
The Brewers and Cubs will meet at American Family Field from Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in the final three games of the season, and they could pack a punch in terms of what they mean for the playoff chase. Given the unexpected surge from the Cubs, Wrigley is drawing more than 2,000 fans per game compared to last year, and you better believe Chicago fans will travel to Milwaukee for those games.
Perhaps the Brewers can secure an edge before it comes to that; after all, they close the season with the Pirates, Yankees, Marlins, Nationals, Cardinals, Marlins again, Cardinals again and Cubs. Along with the Cubs, the Marlins, which enter the week one game above .500 are the only winning team in that mix.
Speaking of schedules, the Cubs just got through an easy part
Chicago faces Milwaukee having just won series against the Royals, Tigers and Pirates, and the Cubs still face a four-game deficit having come through a favorable run in their schedule.
It gets much unfriendlier from here. After Milwaukee, it's four on the road against the Reds (including a doubleheader), three vs. San Francisco, four vs. Arizona, three at Coors Field in Colorado and then three more in Arizona. Before closing in Milwaukee, Chicago will have to fly to Atlanta to face the NL-leading Atlanta Braves, though the Braves may have sewn up the top seed in the league by then.
Put more succinctly, the remaining opponents on the Cubs schedule have an average winning percentage of 50.6%, and 23 of the remaining 32 games are against playoff contenders. By comparison, Milwaukee's opponents have a 48.5% winning percentage, and 16 of 32 games are against playoff teams. Seven of those 16 games are against a Marlins team that is fading from contention.
The Brewers and Cubs have played five games decided by two or fewer runs so far
March 30: Chicago 4, Milwaukee 0. Opening day in Wrigley Field went poorly for the offense, with Luis Urías getting injured, to boot. Corbin Burnes labored through five innings, allowing all four runs in the third.
April 1: Milwaukee 3, Chicago 1. The Brewers started the season with 16 scoreless innings but broke through with three in the eighth, including a two-run single by William Contreras. Joey Wiemer doubled in his first big-league at-bat, and Brandon Woodruff allowed just one run in six innings. After the first two Cubs of the ninth reached base, Devin Williams slammed the door.
April 2: Milwaukee 9, Chicago 5. Jesse Winker drove in three runs, Garrett Mitchell delivered an RBI triple as one of his two RBIs, and Willy Adames drove in a pair as well. Milwaukee put the game out of reach with a five-run sixth, and Eric Lauer allowed two runs in just more than five innings.
July 3: Milwaukee 8, Chicago 6. The Brewers fell behind, 6-0, but plated three runs in the third, three in the seventh and two in the eighth for the win. Jahmai Jones, in his first MLB at-bat in two years, cleared the bases with a double on the first pitch he saw to tie the game. Adames and Owen Miller drove in the winning runs in the eighth.
July 4: Chicago 7, Milwaukee 6. On the short list of the most frustrating games of the year. The Brewers scored twice in the ninth to force extras but then had a runner thrown out at the plate in the 10th (along with Owen Miller at second base on the same play) and another runner thrown out at the plate in the 11th to end the game. The Cubs got a run with two outs in the 11th on Nico Hoerner's single.
July 5: Chicago 4, Milwaukee 3. The follow-up wasn't much better, when Chicago scored three times in the ninth to prevail, handing Devin Williams a blown save. Mike Tauchman's soft double to left field tied the game with two outs, and Hoerner reached on a throwing error by Brian Anderson that allowed the go-ahead run to score.
July 6: Milwaukee 6, Chicago 5. Nearly one year after his Fourth of July home run beat the Cubs, Victor Caratini again burned his old team with a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning. Freddy Peralta struck out 10 batters in 5⅓ innings, Joel Payamps recorded the save, and Christian Yelich also homered in the game.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs to meet in huge NL Central series