Chicago Cubs: Brewers look to nab first place in NL Central

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs looks to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers with first place on the line Saturday night at Miller Park.

The red-hot Chicago Cubs have switched their focus from cross town to up North on I-94 as they look to continue their post All-Star break dominance in their biggest series of the year so far. The Brewers and Cubs may have taken different paths to start the second half, but the two clubs are quite similar. The Cubs have gone 11-3 since the break while the Brewers have gone 5-9 resulting in a first and second place swap atop the National League Central.

The Brewers took game one of the pivotal series on Friday night; Brent Suter outdueled Jose Quintana, giving him his first loss as a Cub, by tossing seven innings of four-hit ball in a 2-1 Brewers’ victory. Friday’s tight game proved that there’s a reason these two clubs have been playing tag all summer long and that we’re in for a dandy of a weekend series – these two clubs are built the same.

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The men at the corners

The driving force behind both club’s lineups is their corner infielders. The Brewers are enjoying a breakout campaign from third-baseman Travis Shaw and have witnessed an impressive comeback in the likes of their first-baseman Eric Thames. As of this writing, Shaw is hitting .295 with 24 home runs and 74 RBIs, compared to Kris Bryant’s line of .271/19/43. Thames had a torrid start to his return to the MLB and is currently playing to a .252 average with 24 homers and 45 RBIs. Anthony Rizzo is enjoying another productive season currently swatting .259 with 24 home runs and 67 knocked in.

The corner infielders for both respective teams are critical to their team’s lineup and success; Thames is seeing regular time in the two-hole while Shaw consistently bats cleanup. On the Cubs’ card, Bryant frequently bats second with Rizzo behind him. It’s interesting to note that Thames and Shaw lead the Brewers in runs, scoring 63 and 60 respectively.

Bryant and Rizzo lead the way for the Cubs in the same category with 65 and 60. The Brewers have followed the Cub formula of consistent, smart at-bats in the middle of your lineup from corner infielders who produce and so far, the execution is developing results.

The Brewers decorate the rest of their infield in a similar approach to the Cubs as well. They also have a super utility player who plays all over the diamond. In 2016, Jonathan Villar played third base, shortstop and second base drawing similarities to the Cubs’ uber infielder, Javier Baez. The Brewers also have a young shortstop with a rocket arm in the likes of 22-year-old Orlando Arcia whose slender frame and defensive wizardry is similar to Cubbie 23-year-old shortstop, Addison Russell.

Will they answer the move?

The Jose Quintana deal during the All-Star break was a power move by the Cubs. And the Brewers have yet to respond with a strong move of their own. With the trade deadline fast approaching, the Brewers have been linked to prying second basemen Ian Kinsler away from the Tigers. Kinsler would add a steady bat to the middle of the order and would allow Villar to go back to the utility role he thrived in a year ago. The veteran Kinsler could be seen as a reflection of the Cubs’ second baseman, Ben Zobrist, an established presence in the lineup to help captain the younger players on the squad.

On the pitching mound, a quick comparison can be drawn between the Brewers’ and Cubs’ 33-year old vets Matt Garza and Jon Lester. But the real similarities lie between right-handers Zach Davies and Kyle Hendricks. Both pitchers rely heavily on their sinker and changeup. And both use pinpoint location to keep opposing batters on top of the ball. This results in plenty of groundballs for their infielders to gobble up. Davies, slated to start the series’ finale, is currently enjoying a 12-4 season while Saturday’s starter, Hendrick’s showed in his first start since returning from the DL that he can reclaim his low ERA magic from last season.

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Closing in style

Both clubs employ shutdown arms at the back end of their bullpen who both flaunt minuscule ERAs in the closer role. The Brewers closer, Corey Knebel notched his 18th save of the year on Friday. He’s struck out 83 batters in 47 1/3 innings pitched and owns a sparkling 1.75 ERA. Similarly, Wade Davis has 48 Ks in 34 innings and has a minute 2.12 earned run average.

Through ten match-ups so far in 2017, the Cubs have narrowly outscored the Brewers 57-54. Both teams have split the series with five wins apiece. If Friday’s matchup was any indication of the rest of the series, us baseball fans are in for a doozy. Both teams rely on strong defense. (Seriously, watch Jason Heyward’s robbery of Ryan Braun)  And timely, smart hitting (Baez’ monster bomb). There’s no better way to spend a Saturday night, smells like extra-innings are looming.