Huge Cubs-Brewers showdown gets underway

July 25th, 2019

The Cubs and Brewers meet this weekend at Miller Park for the first time since mid-May, and in a broad sense they are right where everybody thought they would be at the end of July: bunched near the top of a close-packed National League Central. They just expected to have a little more distance between themselves and the .500 mark. To get the pulse on each team heading into the series, we asked our beat writers from both clubs -- Adam McCalvy (Brewers) and Jordan Bastian (Cubs) -- to weigh in. Here’s their exchange ahead of Friday’s 7:10 p.m. CT series opener:

McCalvy: The Brewers aligned their second-half rotation so that All-Star right-hander Brandon Woodruff would pitch in both July series against the Cubs -- this weekend at Miller Park and the following weekend at Wrigley Field. But Woodruff went down Sunday with an oblique injury that will sideline him into September, representing a huge blow for a pitching staff with the third-highest ERA in the NL, and for a team that was 16-4 when he takes the mound. Gio Gonzalez, Chase Anderson and Zach Davies will start the three games this weekend instead. They are Milwaukee’s only three healthy starting pitchers after Jhoulys Chacin suffered his own oblique injury in Wednesday’s win over the Reds.

I don’t even need to ask who’s pitching for the Cubs, because you know Jose Quintana will be involved. This is the third series between the teams and lefty Quintana will have pitched in all three, this time scheduled for Sunday’s finale following Kyle Hendricks in the opener and Jon Lester on Saturday. Last year, including Game 163 at Wrigley Field, Quintana made seven starts against the Brewers to tie the record since MLB expanded to 30 years. The sure things in life are death, taxes and Quintana pitching against the Brewers. Jordan, are you going to lie to me and tell me this is a coincidence?

Bastian: You want the truth? You can't handle the truth! Kidding aside, Quintana has turned in a 2.63 ERA in 13 career starts against the Brewers, and that's including the eight runs he allowed in three innings in a loss to Milwaukee back on April 5. Familiarity can go both ways. This year, the Brewers have tagged Quintana for 11 runs in 9 2/3 innings and they have beaten him twice. Digging a little deeper, there is definitely reasoning for using Quintana so often against Milwaukee (even if the schedule undoubtedly plays a role). Over the 2017-18 seasons, the Brewers posted a .423 slugging percentage against left-handed four-seamers (MLB average was .455 in that span). As it happens, Quintana threw 46.8 percent four-seamers against Milwaukee in that time period. This year, his four-seam rate is 34.3 percent. That will be something to watch, because Cubs manager Joe Maddon has praised Quintana lately for not leaning so heavily on his fastball.

One of the big storylines for the Cubs right now is how the team will approach the upcoming Trade Deadline. One perceived need is a left-handed reliever to neutralize impact lefty bats in key moments (see: Christian Yelich). As of this writing, Cubs lefty relievers this year had allowed a .326/.385/.530 slash line against left-handed hitters. At the moment, ground-ball specialist Kyle Ryan and Tim Collins are the lefties in the bullpen. What kind of reinforcements are the Brewers currently trying to add?

McCalvy: Yelich is indeed more vulnerable against lefties, but that’s not saying much. He'll take a .969 OPS against southpaws into this weekend's series against Chicago. The Brewers’ problem has been less run-scoring than run-prevention, and they are looking at ways to improve the pitching staff before Wednesday's Deadline. David Stearns said this week that he is still in evaluative mode. In other words, the team’s performance is going to help dictate how much he does or does not do at the Deadline. Stearns sounds like a man who wants to add.

But here’s the problem: It looks like the Brewers need one good starter and one good reliever at the bare minimum, and they haven’t been playing like a club that warrants the sort of prospect purge it would take to get deals like that done. Over the past six weeks, Milwaukee has played 29 of their 36 games against teams with losing records, but of those 29 games, the Brewers lost 19. Angsty times in Milwaukee. I presume the same is true in Wrigleyville.

Bastian: Indeed. Given the tight NL Central race, the Cubs (and their fans) feel fortunate that the team's so-so play over the past six weeks has not cost them ground in the division race. Chicago's front office is also in evaluating mode. Robel Garcia -- who spent the past few years playing in Italy -- has been logging time at second base and in the outfield for the Cubs, who promoted him from Triple-A after he tore through the Minor Leagues. Infielder Addison Russell was just optioned back to Triple-A amidst some lackluster play. The Triple-A shuttle has been active with relievers going back and forth, as the team's decision-makers continue to examine their in-house alternatives.

There are some players dinged up (Lester was scratched from Wednesday's start due to illness and Kris Bryant exited Wednesday's game with right knee soreness), on the injured list (Cole Hamels) or recently returned (Willson Contreras). Contreras was activated from the IL on Wednesday and the Cubs are now carrying three catchers. Besides the big setback with Woodruff, are there any health issues that will impact this weekend set?

McCalvy: To be determined. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain was briefly banged-up after hitting his left knee on the ground making a play in Wednesday’s win, but he said he’s good to go Friday. Mike Moustakas was hit on the hand by a pitch later in the game, but it appears his protective pad saved him. It’s the next series between the teams -- the one a week later at Wrigley -- in which the impact of Milwaukee’s pitching “bind,” as Craig Counsell called it, will be felt. With Woodruff already down, the Brewers lost Jhoulys Chacin to an oblique injury on Wednesday. So, whether they fill those spots internally or externally, the Cubs will see at least one new starter in that three-game set.

Whomever takes the mound, my money is on some memorable games between these two teams. The second half of each of the past two seasons has been full of them, including an incredible four-game set here at Miller Park late in 2017 in which the first three games took 10 innings to settle, and a three-game series here last September that started with Yelich’s walk-off dash home on a grounder to Bryant. It seems like every time the Brewers and Cubs meet, the games mean a little extra.