Photo: Jon Durr/Getty Images

Fresh off being tagged by a record-tying number of dingers Thursday against the Nationals, the Milwaukee Brewers—losers in nine of their last 11 games—return home hoping to avoid a serious ass-kicking at the hands of the red-hot Chicago Cubs, who come into town leading the division for the first time since May.

It’s been a drastic turn of events since the All-Star break, during which the Brewers held a 5.5 game lead on Chicago. The past few weeks, the Cubs have finally played like the defending World Series champs, while the Brewers again look like the average, .500 team they’ve been the past five years. The Cubs have a chance to bury the Brewers’ playoff hopes if they dominate this weekend.

Advertisement

This much-improved, streaking Cubs squad has been led by, of all people, Willson Contreras, who’s settled into a larger role this year and is thriving. He’s hitting .351 this month and leading the team with seven homers in July. Contreras and the team have also been helped out by the improved Kyle Schwarber. The bulky outfielder is still batting a dismal .191 on the season, but in the last 15 games he’s hitting .280, which is both encouraging and exactly what the Cubs need to return to form.

The Brewers can take heart, though, knowing that they won’t have to face either of the Cubs’ top two pitchers, as Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester pitched Wednesday and Thursday. José Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, and especially John Lackey present much more hittable opposition for Milwaukee, who have maintained a solid offense despite the team slump. It’s a safe bet in general to say that some of these poor Brewers results are simply bad luck (Thursday against Washington excluded). Four of their last nine losses have been by two runs or less.

Still, this series is one of the most important of the season. If the Cubs can sweep, they open up a 4.5 game lead in the NL Central, with an inexperienced Brewers team trying to play catch-up through the back half of the year. After this, the two teams won’t meet again until September.

Advertisement

The Sunday pitching match-up of Lackey versus Zach Davies, who’s gone back-to-back starts without allowing an earned run, should prevent disaster, but as much as there can be “must-win” baseball games in July, these are them for Milwaukee. There’s a lot of schedule yet to be played, but given the greatness of this year’s NL West—which currently holds three teams better than any in the Central—winning the division might be the only path to the playoffs that the Cubs and Brewers have.