MILWAUKEE -- An early June showdown awaits the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers this week, as they'll renew their budding rivalry over the next three days with first place on the line. Just like a year ago at this time, the Brewers have dictated the standings from atop the NL Central. But unlike last season, the two-time defending division champions are making their move in early June instead of late July.
Trailing by just a half-game entering Monday night's contest, the Cubs are playing their best baseball of the season, despite losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday. It was just their fourth loss in 16 games. The Brewers also lost on Sunday, marking their fifth defeat in eight June games, which has allowed the Cubs to make up some ground while setting up the early summer face-to-face at Miller Park.
"You can't contrive it," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of the rivalry. "People that attempt to contrive a rivalry, I've always gotten a kick out of it. It's an organic thing. You cannot force rivalry."
Bad blood can raise tensions between division opponents, but if the teams are fighting to stay out of the cellar, does it really matter? You need more. These teams -- solid in many facets of the game -- have it.
"You have to have another good team," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said earlier this season. "We gave them a run [last season]. It wasn't good enough."
Normally, a matchup between teams in first and second place would mean a hostile environment for the visitors, but with the Brewers' home stadium dubbed Wrigley North, it's essentially a neutral field. For example, outfielder Ryan Braun is used to getting booed on the road, but in his own park? It happens all the time when the Cubs come to town.
The first time the teams met in Milwaukee this season didn't exactly bring out the best in each fan base, as early April baseball rarely does. Only one game drew more than 40,000 fans, and one drew fewer than 30,000. The Cubs took three of four. Later in the month -- with a little more interest -- the Cubs swept the Brewers in a four-game series at Wrigley Field.
That brings us to the most obvious storyline heading into the series: The Cubs have already taken seven of eight from the Brewers. Is that a meaningless coincidence or a meaningful trend? Perhaps we'll get some answers this week, but Milwaukee has one advantage. Any series in which Jon Lester does not pitch is a good one for the Cubs' opposition, as his ERA (2.22) ranks third in the NL. In fact, the Brewers will miss both Lester and usually reliable righty Kyle Hendricks. But Jose Quintana boasts a 0.63 ERA against Milwaukee in six career starts, and he'll face Junior Guerra on Monday in a juicy battle of middleweights. Eric Thames is expected to return from the disabled list, according to the Brewers' website, which will give Milwaukee its own boost heading into the series.
Then there's Josh Hader, the most dynamic reliever in the league. He didn't pitch Sunday, meaning he should be fresh for the Cubs. There will be a nice cat-and-mouse game between Maddon and Counsell, as both managers have top-ranked relievers to deploy this week, but none is better than Hader, with his ability to get strikeouts (70 in 35.1 innings). Maddon surely will alternate righty and lefty bats in his lineup, as he usually does, to ensure that Hader won't face several lefties in a row -- not that it matters much. Lefties are hitting .057 off Hader, with righties hitting just .103. The notion of a late-game matchup between Hader and Anthony Rizzo sounds destined to happen unless the game is a blowout.
Perhaps that's where the season series between the teams is misleading. Other than Game 1 on April 5 -- an 8-0 win by the Cubs -- the meetings have mostly been tight affairs. The Brewers simply didn't hit when the Cubs swept them at Wrigley, but they've more than made up for it since. Milwaukee trails the Los Angeles Dodgers by one home run for the top spot in the NL, while the Cubs rank 10th in that category. However, the Cubs have the best OPS in the league, while Milwaukee is outside the top five. It's hard to find an edge in the pitching matchup considering Lester isn't throwing in the series, though both teams have plenty of good arms besides the ones already mentioned.
No matter what happens this week, it's hard to see the Brewers beating the Cubs for the division title without faring better head-to-head. They survived a 1-7 start against their rivals 90 miles to the south, but could they survive another similar stretch? Is this the week the Cubs blow by Milwaukee, then carry on to take down the St. Louis Cardinals, establishing themselves once again as the team to beat? Or is this division destined for important games in September, like it had last year?
No longer is it early. No longer are managers and fans learning what their teams are all about. Both the Cubs and Brewers are good. Now we might start to find out who is better. If these three games aren't enough, then perhaps the softball contest between the wives/girlfriends of each team, played at noon Tuesday outside Miller Park, will tell us something. That one is being played for charity. The ones at night and Wednesday afternoon will have no such connotation.
Will this be moving week in the NL Central? For Cubs fans, it's six days of rivalry games to kick-start the summer. For Brewers fans, it's a chance to test the first-place standing and find out if that 1-7 mark against Chicago is a fluke.
"They're a good team," Rizzo said the last time the teams met. "They're hungry. You have two teams with high aspirations."
And still do.