CHICAGO -- It's come to this for the Chicago Cubs: Fourteen of their next 19 games are against the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs' two closest competitors in the National League Central. Everything will be decided over the next couple of weeks, and it begins with the first-ever regular-season Friday night game at Wrigley Field -- against Milwaukee.
The Brewers didn't like the time change -- it was originally scheduled as a day game -- but perhaps they should take it as a sign of respect. The Cubs didn't want to travel home from a night game in Pittsburgh -- which was delayed by rain -- and then have to play a day game against a division rival.
The back-and-forth between the teams regarding the time switch is part of a budding rivalry between two cities separated by about 90 miles. The Brewers are the young upstart, trying to upend the World Series champions. The Cubs are attempting to defend their division and then repeat as world champions -- which would be a first for a National League team since the Reds went back-to-back 1975 and 76.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon saw this coming in the Brewers, praising their rebuilding efforts over the past couple of years. Now Milwaukee wants what the Cubs have.
"You have to take things," Maddon said. "Things aren't given to you. ... It's good for our division. It's good for baseball. I love the competition. I think it's great.
"I know they're coming off a tough series in Cincinnati, but that doesn't mean anything."
The Brewers were swept by the Reds to fall five games behind the Cubs, but as Maddon indicated, it doesn't make them any less dangerous. The season series has been tight, with the Cubs taking seven of 12; they have seven games left against Milwaukee.
"They've pitched well against us," said Cubs starter Mike Montgomery, who is scheduled for Saturday. "They've hit well against us. My plan is not to let the moment get to you. Draw on the big games in the past. At the end of the day, you have to have fun and not take yourself too seriously."
It's the one edge the Cubs have. They've already experienced the big moments a pennant race provides, and they came through at every turn last season. Win or lose, Milwaukee is getting its chance to learn what it takes.
"Flashback to 2012 and 2013," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "We wanted to beat them. I see that in them. They are a young team and want to prove themselves. It was very similar to us."
After winning the division in 2011, the Brewers started a decline just as Theo Epstein took over in Chicago and began an ascent which culminated in a title last year. Now it's Milwaukee's turn to see its rebuilding process through. The Cubs are the ones being hunted, not long after doing the hunting. Maddon had a message for his team.
"Don’t take anything for granted," Maddon said. "Don’t think just because you’ve done this, and they haven’t, that you have a lock on something."
Adding to the on-field tug-of-war is the off-the-field drama between the teams. The Brewers were off Thursday, so they had no problem playing a day game Friday and complained of the game being moved to a nighttime affair. Milwaukee was also upset with the Cubs earlier this season when they called off a Saturday game in May even though it didn't rain.
"It's the first time for us that we've had players treated for sunburn after a rainout," Brewers manager Craig Counsell famously said after the cancellation, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The makeup game forced the Brewers to return to Chicago for one day, on July 6. They promptly beat the Cubs 11-2 with a bit of a smirk. At the time, they led the division, as Chicago was finding its legs after a short offseason of celebrating. After the All-Star break, the Cubs took control and are looking to put the finishing touches on their second straight division title and third consecutive postseason appearance.
"Just as they want to establish their turf, we don’t want to give up ours, either," Maddon said. "It'll be a well-played, hard-fought series. I have a lot of respect for them.
"You want to be in this position at this time of year to play meaningful games."
The Brewers would most certainly concur. They have the Cubs' attention.