It's the Brew Crew vs. Lou's Crew

Calendars don't lie. It is only July, with the trade deadline looming on the horizon. The baseball season remains full of an endless array of possibilities.

But if you pay attention only to the standings and the sense of anticipation on the western shores of Lake Michigan, you would think it was September.

That's certainly the feeling you would probably get if you were in the vicinity of Miller Park this week, watching people mingle around in search of tickets to view a battle of true heavyweights in the National League Central.

It's the Brew Crew versus the Lou Crew, four games in four days, for the right not to pay more than passing attention to the wild-card standings.

Truly, that's all that is on the line. But in Milwaukee, where fans had suffered through 14 consecutive seasons without a winning record before owner Mark Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin tapped into baseball's soaring national revenues to construct a contender, the end-of-July series between the Brewers and Lou Piniella's Cubs is the most anticipated series since a late-season visit by the Yankees in 1982.

Ticket scalpers are asking $150 for outfield bleacher seats and more than $1,000 for ones behind home plate, a price they just might get because they aren't just selling to Brewers' fans. Thousands of fans make their way up Interstate 94 every time the Cubs play at Miller Park, often finding it easier to get tickets there than at Wrigley Field.

That won't be the case this time, however.

Not with the Cubs and Brewers a combined 32 games above .500. Not with CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden all scheduled to make starts, including the showpiece matchup of Zambrano versus Sheets on Tuesday. Not with the Brewers having caught fire since trading for Sabathia.

Melvin beat a crowd of pursuers to the reigning American League Cy Young winner, getting Sabathia from Cleveland on July 7. The Brewers have gone 11-5 with him in uniform, including a 4-0 record in his starts.

In a season in which home teams have been dominating, Milwaukee went 7-0 on a trip to San Francisco and St. Louis last week, sending the Cardinals reeling.

"Right now, our confidence level is at an all-time high,'' Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun said.

In an immediate sense, the Cubs can't say the same thing. They head into this week's series having gone 4-6 since the All-Star break, with a road record of 22-30.

But under Piniella and ultra-aggressive GM Jim Hendry, they've had a .579 winning percentage since hitting stride in June 2007. Their overall strength, bolstered by Hendry's gamble on the high-risk, high-reward Harden, suggests they have a legitimate shot to end their 100-year World Series title drought.

In the eyes of the fans and many players, the year will be incomplete if the Cubs don't win a championship.

Rich Harden


CC Sabathia


"This is my best shot I've ever had to win it," said Mark DeRosa, the Cubs' revolving run-producer. "I think that's the pressure. We realize what we have in this clubhouse.''

With Attanasio still stinging from the Brewers' free fall out of first place last season and more determined than ever to make a playoff run before losing Sheets to free agency, and the Cubs trying to concoct their own storybook season while Tribune Co. orchestrates baseball's first billion-dollar franchise transfer, the NL Central race has turned into a Midwestern blizzard of one-upmanship.

The Cubs and Brewers are good teams built to battle until the end. But this isn't 1993, when Atlanta sent a 103-win San Francisco team home before the playoffs began. The wild card changes the math in playoff races, as St. Louis and Houston showed in 2001.

That season the Cardinals and Astros battled to what effectively was a tie in the Central, winning 93 games apiece. Both were assured of playoff spots long before the division had been settled, because no other runner-up won more than 90 games.

This time around, the Cubs, Brewers, Mets, Phillies and Cards are positioned to stage a five-for-three fight for playoff spots. The Marlins or Braves hope to push their way into the mix, but it appears the wild card most likely will come from the Central.

Entering Monday night's series opener, the Brewers are one game behind the Cubs in the Central but three games ahead of St. Louis in the wild-card race. Philadelphia, four behind, is the closest non-Central team.

This is no accident.

"We're going for it,'' Melvin said after the Sabathia trade.

He continued to show his aggressiveness by dealing for San Francisco second baseman Ray Durham and may yet add a bullpen arm before Thursday's deadline.

"We just felt that we needed to go for it,'' Melvin said. "There's a lot of baseball left and we're playing well right now. We feel good about the team."

While the Brewers have been drawing fans all season -- they're 11th in the majors with an average attendance of 36,345, and climbing -- Attanasio claims that the addition of Sabathia and Durham could cause the club to operate at a loss this season. After all, the payroll has gone up from about $40 million in 2005 to almost $81 million.

"Let's face it -- this is still a calculated risk," Attanasio told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "The other teams in our division aren't going to sit back and look at this and say, 'Now the Brewers have got CC Sabathia. Let's just roll over.' I look at this as trying to do what's right for the team and not get all caught up in renting a player or whatever. The fans put us in position to do this as well. We're trying to give something back to them as well."

Sabathia, who faces Ted Lilly on Monday, has been nothing but dominating since moving to the NL, throwing complete-game victories in his past three starts, including a three-hit shutout at St. Louis on Wednesday.

Like Sheets, Sabathia seems likely to leave Milwaukee as a free agent after the season. But he's going to try to help get the Brewers deep into the playoffs, as he did with Cleveland a year ago, before worrying about how many zeroes are on his next contract.

"It's hard enough to play this game as it is, let alone [with] any other distractions,'' Sabathia said. "I'll focus on that when it comes. … When I found out Milwaukee had a chance to get me, I was excited because I know some of the guys in the clubhouse and how good the team is.''

How good is this Brewers team? Is it as good as a Cubs team that entered the season with Piniella in the manager's office and Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano in the lineup?

Check back in two months.

The Cubs and Brewers play 10 more games, including the last three of the season. Those, like the next four, will be played in Milwaukee. Get your tickets early.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).