CHICAGO -- The good news for Chicago Cubs fans is that all the statistical forecasts still give the Cubs a high probability to win their division, despite dropping the first two games of their series against the Milwaukee Brewers this weekend, including a 15-2 pounding on Saturday. They were also shut out 2-0 on Friday.
Those forecasts, though, don't take into account the idea of breathing life into the opposition. Looking nearly buried after a three-game sweep by the Cincinnati Reds earlier in the week, the Brewers must be feeling pretty good about themselves now, despite still being three games behind the Cubs in the standings. They've gotten the attention of the defending world champions.
"It kind of reminds us, these guys don't look at us as the team to beat," Saturday's losing pitcher, Mike Montgomery, said after the rout. "They think they're the team to beat. They come to play and act like it. It reminds us we really have to bring it against them."
The drubbing on Saturday could be a reminder of a few things: Montgomery may not be ready for prime time as a starter -- though he will get at least another turn in the rotation next week -- and manager Joe Maddon's lineup is still a work in progress.
How can a first-place team with World Series aspirations not have more than a couple of hitters (Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant) it can count on? The Cubs had an awful week at the plate, scoring just 15 runs since tallying 14 last Saturday, and eight of those came in one game. Perhaps the losses of Addison Russell and Willson Contreras, who is due back soon, are finally showing up on offense.
Of course, it's hard to judge anything besides who's on the mound when you give up eight runs in the third inning, as the Cubs did on Saturday, essentially sealing their fate for the day.
"We've had that game way too often this year," Maddon stated. "We gave up large innings. The big innings we've given up have made for some awkward days for us this year."
It's a reminder that starting pitching is still paramount at this time of year. Right now, the Brewers have as much of it as the Cubs do, perhaps even more, though they lost Friday's winner, Jimmy Nelson, for the rest of the season. And three games out of first place sounds a lot more doable at this time of year than seven -- that's where Milwaukee would have been if the Cubs had their act together these past two days.
Reflecting on Saturday's blowout, Maddon said with a smirk: "It started out bad, it got worse and we didn't get anyone hurt. That's probably the biggest positive tonight."
These first two games are also a reminder that no one said winning back-to-back division titles was going to be easy. In fact, zooming out of the moment, it's not as though the Cubs have played such great baseball this season that they necessarily deserved the five-game lead they had when the series began. Perhaps this is just about everything evening out, which means the race could go down to the wire. A sweep by Milwaukee assuredly gives the Brewers great hope over the final three weeks, which include a four-game series at Miller Park.
"I take nothing for granted, ever," Maddon said. "They have some good pitching on Milwaukee's side. Their starting pitching is good, they have really good arms in the bullpen. That's the one thing no one talks about enough with them. I think their pitching is solid."
The Cubs are talking about it, and as stated earlier, Milwaukee has their attention. Perhaps it's a day or two late, but there's time enough to wake up and put the Brewers in the rearview mirror once and for all. It just may take longer than anyone wanted -- or expected.
"A day like today wasn't meant to be, but we have a lot of season left," Montgomery said. "We'll be ready to go to face these guys."
They better be. The season is coming to a head.