Brewers face uphill battle in trying to dethrone Cubs

CHICAGO -- They face each other eight more times -- beginning with a quick two-game series at Wrigley Field starting Tuesday -- as the National League Central race between the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewerscomes to a head.

Will the experience the Brewers gained in last year's race, combined with its roster depth, pay off? Or will the two-time defending division champs, and 2016 World Series champions, prevail once again?

Three games separate the Cubs and Brewers -- thanks to a walk-off grand slam by Chicago's David Bote on Sunday night -- while the home team the next two days has four games in hand. The Cubs seem to have the upper hand, but they haven't been playing well of late.

So what do the experts think? We asked one NL scout, player and executive -- all employed outside the Central Division -- to weigh in on the race. Spoiler alert: It's not good news if you're a Brewers fan.

"When does the wind start to blow consistently in again?" the scout asked. "The Cubs have a better chance when the wind blows in and here's why: They're a better team."

In other words, the Wrigley slugfest is up for grabs, as evidenced by some recent losses by the Cubs at home, but if those elements are out of the equation, Chicago has the edge, according to the scout.

"The second thing is they have more experienced starting pitching," he said.

That notion was echoed by the NL executive. Even when it was pointed out that the Cubs' rotation has been worse than the Brewers' most of the season, it didn't change their position. They would take the Cubs' starters down the stretch. And all three believe Jon Lester will find his form again, no question.

"Lester is the man, unless he's injured and not telling anyone," the scout said. "It's baseball. Sometimes you suck."

For a lot of the season, the Brewers' bullpen was the envy of the division. The Cubs had a good relief staff as well, but they walked too many. Now the Brewers are feeling the heat, with a 5.72 ERA since the All-Star break, ranked 26th in baseball.

"Milwaukee has used their bullpen a whole bunch and now [Josh] Hader isn't doing what he was doing," the scout said, adding that Corey Knebel also has not been as effective as usual over the past few weeks.

The executive pointed out that the Cubs' Pedro Strop had never closed before, but was doing well filling in for Brandon Morrow. He and the scout indicated that when Strop loses command, it could go in the other direction for him. It's up to manager Joe Maddon to see when that's coming.

"Joe understands that when certain things trend against Strop, he'll use someone else," the scout said.

"I like Strop, but you have to be careful," the executive stated.

The NL player couldn't choose one bullpen over the other when asked -- mostly because Hader is still a difference-maker -- but noted how underrated Cubs right-hander Steve Cishek is.

"Righties don't like to face him like lefties don't like Hader," he said. "Maybe not exactly the same but same difficulties."

Asked for the path in which the Brewers could take down the Cubs -- FiveThirtyEight.com gives Chicago a 78 percent chance of winning the division -- the scout said he thinks the only way would be with their bats.

"Glass half full for them is their offense and how they're playing at the time, if that makes sense," he said. "When they get rolling, they're formidable, but they have to slug their way there. They aren't very good in situations."

In fact, the Brewers are third to last in baseball in getting a runner home from third with less than two outs. That has been a sore spot for the Cubs in recent years, but they've improved this season as they're nearly at league average.

The scout also gave the Cubs the nod on defense, at least in the infield, where Milwaukee has revamped things.

"They have no range," the scout said of the Brewers.

The biggest difference with the Cubs is in their offense. They can score in different ways, though they've been slumping lately. Still, there was no question who our experts favor.

"We're throwing some maybes out [regarding Milwaukee] and there are yeses on the Cubs' side," the executive said. "I like to know what to expect from a guy when the game is on the line. I don't want to have to guess. I want to know."

So the Brewers clearly are behind the eight ball -- in the standings, the math and the eye test of some in the game. But right now the Cubs aren't playing great baseball. A two-game sweep by the Brewers would certainly invigorate them. It's not like they have no chance.

"They have good offensive players, but their starting pitching is the thing that's going to be the wild card," the scout said. "I still choose the Cubs to prevail. ...The Brewers are going to have to bang [hit] to win."

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