Cubs set sights on catching Brewers for division lead after series win
If the Cubs make the playoffs, the next step is a three-game series in the wild card round. And that's become their specialty in the second half of the season.
By scraping out another 1-run victory over Milwaukee on Wednesday, the Cubs are now 11-1-1 in the last 13 series they've played. Kyle Hendricks delivered another solid start and the Cubs scored a run in the eighth to beat the Brewers 3-2.
If they can be the home team in a three-game playoff series, even better. To do that, they need to catch Milwaukee for the NL Central lead or Philadelphia for the top wild card spot. They trail the Brewers by three games after winning two out of three this week.
"Obviously, we believe the division is reachable," Cody Bellinger said after the game. "We've thought that for a while. It's definitely something that we as a group have strived for since spring training."
The Cubs clawed their way to narrow victories the past two days, and are now 17-6 in 1-run decisions since May 29. But the Brewers have the look of a team that's due to return to Earth after a nine-game win streak.
Milwaukee is scrappy, plays sort of a 1970s-style game, hitting to all fields and stringing together singles. But how far can that take them?
At series end, the Cubs had 11 players with an OPS of .733 or higher. Milwaukee has four, and two are relatively new arrivals. Mark Canha joined the Brewers in a trade with the Mets on July 31. Sal Frelick is a rookie who made his major league debut on July 22.
Milwaukee's pitching has been slightly better, especially the bullpen. But the Cubs just won two in a row against the Brewers two best starters, Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff. One of the Brew Crew bullpen stars, Joel Payamps, took the loss Wednesday.
"I think that's what this team has done, they've found a way to win for a while now," Cubs manager David Ross said. "Scratch and claw and overcoming adversity. Again, I talk about the character of this group. They are fun to just sit and watch on a daily basis."
Winning close games should build confidence. The Cubs haven't been perfect, but tend to make the big pitch, great catch or timely hit when it matters.
"It's just resilience," closer Adbert Alzolay said. "The chemistry we have going on right now with this team, and I mean pretty much everyone involved here -- trainers, coaches, players -- is a really good one. I feel like we treat everyone like a family out here and you can see it on the field."
This game was decided late, but the first inning set the tone. Hendricks had allowed first-inning runs in three straight games. This time, he gave up a single and walk to the first three hitters, but escaped the inning with no damage.
"I noticed again they came out pretty aggressive, guys that typically aren't maybe aggressive," Hendricks said. "That's what teams have been doing against me early, trying to jump on heaters, first time through the order.
"So Miggy (catcher Miguel Amaya) locked in on that right away with me. We were able to make the adjustment, able to get (Willy) Adames with a first-pitch change-up and get out of that inning. Then made the adjustment between innings, go back out and really execute all day."
Meanwhile, Woodruff started his day by walking Mike Tauchman and hitting Nico Hoerner; both scored. Ian Happ followed with a double off the wall -- the only extra-base hit by either side -- and a second run came home on Bellinger's ground out.
After Hendricks completed 6 innings with a 2-1 lead, the Cubs' bullpen hit some turbulence. Julian Merryweather retired all four batters he faced, then Mark Leiter Jr. loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth. So Alzolay had to come in earlier than usual, and he hit Canha to force in the tying run.
But Alzolay retired the next batter and the Cubs got the run back. Pinch-hitter Christopher Morel reached on an error. Tauchman walked, Hoerner bunted the runners to second and third, then Morel was cut down at the plate on a fielder's choice.
But Bellinger followed with a rocket that bounced off Payamps' foot, glove or both for the game-winning RBI. Hoerner and Dansby Swanson turned a double play in the ninth to help Alzolay secure the win.
"You can see the energy just going around the neighborhood," Alzolay said. "If you start walking, you can see it's just getting really, really crazy around here and I love that."
Catching Milwaukee during the final month of the season is a reasonable goal. The biggest question is whether the Cubs' pitching can hold up. Rookie Jordan Wicks will make his second major league start Friday in Cincinnati.
In this series, though, it felt like the Brewers' stein is half full.