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After closing NL Central gap, Milwaukee Brewers appear to be in the heads of the Chicago Cubs

It seemed unthinkable when the month began, but the Brewers still have a shot to win the division.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago Cubs Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s crazy how quickly the playoff landscape can change in Major League Baseball. On September 2nd, the Chicago Cubs owned a 5.0 game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and appeared to be cruising towards another division title. 11 days and six contests between the two clubs later, the gap has shrunk to one measly game.

It started with a walk-off win for the Crew (84-63) in the series opener at Miller Park on Labor Day. The game was a back-and-forth affair that began with five strong innings from Zach Davies in his return from the DL, but later saw Josh Hader give up a go-ahead home run to Anthony Rizzo with two outs in the 8th inning. The Brewers tied things back up in the bottom of that inning on a bases-loaded walk to Mike Moustakas, then won the game in the bottom of the 9th after Christian Yelich was able to beat out a fielder’s choice with the bases loaded to score Keon Broxton. A lopsided 11-1 win followed the next day and begat one of the most memorable moments between the two rivals this season:

Chicago (84-61) was able to win the series finale and stave off a sweep, but the momentum seemed to be shifting. The Cubs, in the midst of a grueling stretch of the schedule similar to (perhaps even worse than) the one that the Brewers endured before the All-Star break, looked like a tired team while dealing with some crappy weather and dropping three of their next four games against the Nationals.

The Cubs made it back to Wrigley Field for the start of their three-game tilt with Milwaukee on Monday, and they tabbed lefty John Lester to fact off against the resurgent Wade Miley. Milwaukee’s southpaw induced 14 ground balls while limiting the Cubs to two runs over 5.0 innings, while the bats tagged Lester for eight hits and three runs in 5.2 innings. The bullpens kept the score there, and Milwaukee captured the series opener 3-2. Brewer-killer Jose Quintana shut the offense down in game two en route to a 3-0 Cubs victory, setting up a pivotal game three on Wednesday.

Craig Counsell understood the urgency of yesterday’s game, and he made sure his team was up to the task and that his players were put in the best position to succeed. Chase Anderson got the start and navigated through four scoreless innings, but worked around a lot of hard contact and issued three free passes. Counsell didn’t hesitate with the quick hook as his team was clinging to a 2-0 lead. Jacob Barnes and Corey Knebel combined to give up a run in the fifth (thanks in no small part to an absolutely atrocious defensive play by Hernan Perez), but the work of Joakim Soria, Josh Hader, and Jeremy Jeffress kept the Northsiders at that one run. The Brewers added some Badger Mutual Insurance Runs in the top of the 9th thanks to a solo home run by Curtis Granderson and a two-run single by Moustakas to firmly secure their 5-1 triumph. Granderson also tripled and scored Milwaukee’s first run in the first inning, and in eight games and 17 plate appearances since joining the club, he’s batting .455/.647/1.182 with two home runs and five walks. Small sample size, significant impact.

Milwaukee appears to have bounced back from a trying month of August and seems to have saved their best baseball for when it counts most. The Brewers rank #11 in baseball with a 101 wRC+ from their non-pitchers in September while the pitching staff ranks #2 in the league with 2.69 ERA and #1 with a 2.68 FIP this month. After getting dominated by the Cubs in the early part of 2018, they defeated Chicago in seven of the final 10 contests between the two teams. The series loss that they handed the Cubs this week was the first for the northsiders at the Friendly Confines since way back in May. The Brewers finally seem to be firing on all cylinders, and their rivals 90 miles to the south down I-94 are apparently taking notice:

It has been seven long years since Milwaukee’s last division title, as well as their last postseason berth. Thanks to some deft managing and a well-timed hot streak, the playoffs seem to be firmly within reach this season, with Fangraphs listing the Brewers’ odds as of today at 98.1% and Baseball Prospectus at 99.1%. Milwaukee has a solid lead in the Wild Card standings, but the Cubs are reeling, tired, and have all but admitted that the Brewers are in their heads. The chase for the NL Central crown, as well as the National League’s best record, looks like it is going to go down to the wire.

Buckle up for these final two weeks!

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference