The Cubs and Brewers Matchup Could Decide the NL Central

The Brewers and the Cubs kick-off a three-game set on Monday, and it's a series that could decide the NL Central.

MILWAUKEE, WI - MAY 14: Christian Yelich #22 of the Milwaukee Brewers celebrates with teammate Willy Adames #27 after hitting a home run during the first inning of the game between the Kansas City Royals and the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field on Sunday, May 14, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Aaron Gash/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The Brewers and the Cubs kicked off a three-game set against each other last night, and with just five weeks left to play, it’s a series that will hold monumental implications in the NL Central standings.

The Brewers entered the series with a record of 73-57, sitting atop the NL Central with a four-game lead over Chicago Cubs. However, both teams have been hot since the start of August. The Brewers held the third-best record since the trade deadline at 16-7, and the Cubs are just behind them with record of 16-8.

With just over 30 games left in the season, this may be the Cubs’ biggest opportunity to cut into Milwaukee’s division lead, and this could be the Brewers’ best shot at squashing any division title aspirations the Cubs might have.

Coming into the series, the Brewers had won four of their seven games against the Cubs, including a series victory to open the season and a series split over the Fourth of July weekend.

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If there were to be a tie in the standings at the end of the regular season, the team who has the head-to-head record advantage will be the division champs. Therefore, not only does this series play a big role in the standings, but there are huge tiebreaker implications in this series as well.

It goes without saying, but this is an extremely significant series for both ball clubs. This will be the last time the two teams meet before they close out the regular season with a three-game set against each other in Milwaukee. That is looking to be one of the most significant series of the regular season, and it could all hinge on how this week’s matchup plays out.

For the Brewers, they are playing their best baseball of the season at the right time. They entered the matchup on an eight-game winning streak while averaging 7.25 runs per game over that stretch. They have a golden opportunity to put the Cubs away and establish a significant lead, and they can secure the head-to-head tiebreaker with a sweep of the Cubs. They already got off on the right foot by taking the first game of the series last night by a score of 6-2.

For the Cubs, this will be their best opportunity to slash into the Brewers’ division lead. If they can pull off a series win, the Cubs and Brewers will be tied in their head-to-head matchup heading into their last series of the season.

Wrigley Field was buzzing with a playoff atmosphere last night and that will only continue throughout the remainder of this late-August showdown.

Game 1 Recap

Last night, the Brewers relied on left-handed veteran Wade Miley to go up against Jameson Taillon for the Chicago Cubs. Miley was handed an early lead before he even touched the mound, as the Brewers ambushed Taillon for four runs in the first inning.

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Christian Yelich led the game off with a home run, his 17th of the season. After hits by Sal Frelick and Willy Adames, and a sac fly from Rowdy Tellez, Mark Canha capped off the rally with a two-run homer.

Ian Happ cut into the Brewers lead in the bottom half of the first, hitting a solo homer against Miley and then later in the fifth inning, Patrick Wisdom hit a solo homer as well. Other than that, Miley did a great job keeping the Cubs at bay, holding them to those two runs over six strong innings pitched.

The Brewers bullpen put up three zeroes to close out the game, with the Cubs only mustering five hits and one walk, with their only two runs coming on those solo homers.

All momentum is now on the Brewers side, having won nine-straight games and now holding a five-game lead in the NL Central. Things don’t get any easier for the Cubs, as they now have to face a former Cy Young in Game 2.

Game #2: Corbin Burnes (RHP) Vs. Justin Steele (LHP)

This showdown of aces will be appointment television for any baseball fan, especially considering the talent on the mound coupled with the playoff implications of the matchup.

Justin Steele has been incredible for the Cubs this season. He has been a lockdown starter from the get-go, and his 2.80 ERA is the second-best in Major League Baseball. He might be the Cubs’ most valuable player down the stretch, and they will need him to show up in a big way to shut down this hot Brewers offense.

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Steele has faced Milwaukee twice this season. He spun six shutout innings while striking out eight and only allowing only three hits back on April 1st. However, the Brewers were able to get to him a bit more in their second matchup of the year when they generated nine hits and three runs across Steeles’ six innings.

Corbin Burnes has returned to dominance for a majority of the second half of the season, but he will look to bounce-back from a rough outing last week versus the Minnesota Twins. Burnes’ lone outing against the Cubs came back on Opening Day, so the Cubs will be seeing a much more polished and dialed-in version of Burnes than they saw back in March.

With two of the best pitchers in the National League set to take on opposing offenses that are in peak-form, this has game of the year potential in the NL Central.

Game #3: Brandon Woodruff (RHP) Vs. Kyle Hendrick (RHP)

Brandon Woodruff has returned to the mound for Milwaukee, and his stuff has looked excellent ever since. He is striking out over 33% of his batters faced through his four outings since his return, and he has been excellent at limiting traffic on the base paths, posting a WHIP of 0.88 across those four starts.

Outside of his susceptibility to the long ball in his last four outings, Woodruff has been dominant and will look to keep it going against his division rival.

Kyle Hendricks may be past his prime, but the 33 year old has seen success against this current Brewers roster. In 147 plate appearances against players on this Brewers team, he is posting a 25.5% strikeout rate, and batters are hitting just .209 with a .282 wOBA and a .620 OPS against Hendricks.

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In his one outing versus the Brewers this year, he went six strong innings allowing just four hits and one earned run. This Wednesday afternoon matchup will be yet another entertaining duel of two veteran starters.

The following stats were all taken prior to play on August 28th

Can the Cubs Catch the Brewers?

If anybody catches the Brewers in the NL Central, it’s going to be the Chicago Cubs. Their high-flying offense gives them the ability to compete in any ball game.

The Cubs have the third-most runs scored in the National League this season (662) to go along with a wRC+ of 104. Additionally, they rank in the top-five in the NL in both OPS (.748) and wOBA (.325). Scoring 5.09 runs per game, they have a complete batting order that provides them with a the necessary offensive consistency to compete, while having elite power potential as well.

However, the determining factor for the Cubs will be the success of their pitching staff down the stretch. They’ve pitched well enough up to this point in the season, but there are questions regarding how reliable this starting rotation will be in the final month of the season.

Cubs’ Starting RotationERA (xERA)FIP (xFIP)WHIPOpp BA
Justin Steele 2.80 (3.48)3.18 (3.62)1.17.246
Kyle Hendricks3.80 (4.13)3.97 (4.47)1.14.246
Javier Assad2.81 (4.61)5.30 (4.77)1.09.202
Jameson Taillon5.60 (5.20)4.62 (4.70)1.35.268
Drew Smyly5.40 (4.27)5.33 (4.98)1.44.270
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs

This starting rotation is lacking a reliable compliment to Justin Steele at the top of the rotation. If Marcus Stroman is unable to return to the mound this season, it will be difficult to trust any other starters in this rotation in a postseason game.

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Javier Assad has been able to put together a strong run in the starting rotation as of late. He has spent most of his time this season in the Cubs’ bullpen, but he’s been forced into a starters role in the month of August. In that time, he is pitching to an impressive 2.48 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP in his last five starts.

However, while he has been able to fill Stroman’s void in the rotation, the big question will be his sustainability and reliability in the final month of the season. The second-year man has made only five starts this season, and he has yet to see any postseason action at the big league level in his career.

Kyle Hendricks has put together a successful 2023 season. He has far from overpowering stuff, but his impeccable command makes him a dependable veteran starter who can provide reliable innings for the Cubs. He is a valuable asset for any starting rotation to have in the regular season, but it’s valid to question his effectiveness as arguably the team’s number two starter in the postseason.

Outside of those players, it gets extremely shaky for the Cubs. Jameson Taillon is sporting an ERA over 5.50 (that’s before getting knocked around last night), and Drew Smyly, who has been a swingman as of late, also has an ERA over five on the year.

The Cubs may have to rely upon rookie Jordan Wicks to anchor down the back of the rotation in September. While he dazzled in his debut, there is risk in relying upon a rookie who is seeing their first big league action in the midst of a pennant race.

Closing Thoughts

Milwaukee and Chicago will be reliant upon two very different formulas to win ballgames in their pursuit for a division title.

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For the Brewers, their offense has been their biggest shortcoming this season. However, when things are clicking at the plate, this team can be very hard to beat, and that has been evident during their nine-game win streak, which is their longest since June of 2021.

But at the end of the day, Milwaukee’s success is predicated on the performance of the pitching staff and the ability of their starters to work deep into ballgames. They will rely upon one of the best starting rotations in the National League to carry them to a division title yet again.

For the Cubs, it’s essentially the opposite approach. They will go as far as their high-flying offense can take them. Chicago will look to out-hit their opponents, while hoping to see some role starters elevate their game down the stretch and provide the ball club some quality starts.

The two ball clubs will meet once more to close out the regular season in Milwaukee. Of course, that series could have monumental importance on playoff implications and is on track to be one of the biggest series of the 2023 season.

However, there is a lot of baseball to be played between now and then, and the rest of season outlook for the Brewers and the Cubs could hinge on how the rest of this series at Wrigley plays out.