CHICAGO -- Stumbling toward Labor Day, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago Cubs, the teams that have led the National League Central all season, meet in their final series of the season this week at Wrigley Field.
There's good news for both teams: They are playing teams that have been very beatable in recent weeks, and both have reinforcements on the way -- Alfonso Soriano for the first-place Cubs and Ben Sheets for the second-place Brewers.
There's also bad news for both teams: At least one of them is going to lose some more ground to the third-place St. Louis Cardinals, assuming the Cardinals play their hand by winning at least two of three at Houston. That part might be especially troubling, since the two Central leaders already have allowed the defending World Series champs to make up 8½ games of the 10½-game deficit the Cardinals were dealing with on June 30.
Both the Brewers and Cubs will play September series against the Cardinals, including an extended weekend in which the Cubs play five games in four days in St. Louis. But they could use a little tunnel vision this week.
Here are five questions about the Brewers-Cubs series that starts Tuesday and the power struggle in the Central:
1. What happened to the Brewers' being one of the feel-good stories of the season?
This was one of the prime story lines from the first half of the season. Four Brewers went to the All-Star Game, and the other 21 enjoyed themselves, feeling good about their 4½-game lead over the Cubs. But no one knew that Ned Yost's starting rotation was about to collapse.
When $42 million free-agent pickup Jeff Suppan faces Rich Hill on Tuesday, he'll be trying to end a run of 59 consecutive days without a victory by any of Milwaukee's top three starters. Suppan, Chris Capuano and Sheets are a combined 0-11 since Sheets beat the Cubs on June 30.
Sheets went on the disabled list with torn tissue in his middle finger after leaving a start on July 14. Capuano strung together a stretch in which the Brewers lost 16 consecutive starts from him, and Suppan failed to even hint at the success he had while being one of baseball's best bargains for three years in St. Louis.
Now, the problems go even deeper than this. Claudio Vargas, the Brewers' most effective starter with a 10-4 record, got knocked out in the first inning at San Francisco on Friday and appears headed for the disabled list with back problems. Yovani Gallardo, a tough kid from the hardscrabble side of Fort Worth, Texas, has lost the mojo that made Yost believe he could bail out the disappointing veterans. And the Brewers have lost 14 of their last 19 games, skidding back to .500 and wasting that 24-10 break out of the gate in April and May.
2. Given the Brewers' problems, shouldn't the Cubs be running away with the division?
Yes, they absolutely should. They are the one team at the top of the Central whose ace (Carlos Zambrano) is healthy, and they have the division's best collection of veteran position players in Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Soriano. But the Cubs have failed to seize the moment because: (1) They couldn't win close games early in the season, going 2-12 in their first 14 one-run games, and (2) they are finding that the lack of power hitting can be contagious.
"We have to score more runs," manager Lou Piniella said. "That's really the bottom line. You can't expect our pitchers to go out and give up one or two runs every time we play."
Entering the Brewers series, the Cubs are on pace to finish the season with 131 home runs, their lowest total since 1997, and have hit an NL-low 30 in 42 second-half games.
In Soriano, Ramirez, Lee, Jacque Jones, Mark DeRosa, Matt Murton, Cliff Floyd, Daryle Ward and Henry Blanco, the Cubs have veterans who hit 164 homers a year ago (even with Lee missing most of the season with a broken wrist). That group has combined for only 73 homers this season -- a 43-percent drop in power if it continues through the last five weeks.
"Yeah, we would have thought we'd score more runs," said Lee, who hit his 15th homer on Sunday, an inside-the-park job at Chase Field in Arizona. "Things are not going exactly as planned.''
Doesn't Craig Monroe know it. He thought he'd be helping Detroit try to get back to the World Series. Instead, he was discarded by Jim Leyland and now is part of the Cubs' uphill effort. He fits in perfectly in his new surroundings, having hit 28 home runs in 2006 but only 11 this year.
3. Who could help his team more with a big finish -- Sheets or Soriano?
Sheets, without question.
While Yost still was studying his options Monday, it appears Sheets will start one of the games at Wrigley, either on Tuesday or Wednesday. If he could somehow deliver seven strong innings and a victory, it would be a huge psychological lift for a team that unraveled without him. If Sheets could win three or four games in September, the Brewers might regain some of the confidence they had in the first three months.
But consider this a huge if. Sheets is the Brewers' version of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Something is always wrong with him, especially when he's being counted on the most, it seems. His latest recovery was slowed when he developed a blister during a rehab assignment. For him to hit the ground running in late August seems very unlikely. Soriano, on the other hand, is a good bet to help the Cubs.
Not having some big parts of the puzzle might be why we've had trouble scoring runs.
--Cubs SS Ryan Theriot
His presence in the clubhouse and at the top of the lineup is important, and if anything, he has gained respect with how he's responded to a small tear in his right quadriceps. He appeared to be lost for at least a month, maybe the rest of the season, when he limped off the field Aug. 5. But Soriano will miss only 19 games, and would have been back in the lineup last weekend if had been given his way.
"To his credit, [Soriano] is a hard worker and a quick healer,'' Piniella said. "It's been impressive. He's about a week ahead of schedule. He works hard.''
Jones, almost traded to Florida in July, moved into the No. 2 spot in the order with Soriano out. But the Cubs' lineup sets up better with Soriano back in the leadoff spot and the stubbornly persistent Ryan Theriot (career on-base percentage: .362) in the second hole. "Not having some big parts of the puzzle might be why we've had trouble scoring runs,'' Theriot said.
4. Who's under the most pressure?
For the Brewers, it's Yost and general manager Doug Melvin. For the Cubs, it's Zambrano.
Yost, in his fifth season as the Milwaukee manager, is in the most critical stretch of his career. He has shown signs of cracking, especially when his criticism of players led to a dugout confrontation with catcher Johnny Estrada on Aug. 3.
Melvin got credit for developing the farm system and making the moves that gave the Brewers a 125-day run in first place, but did he make a critical miscalculation at midseason? Melvin felt he could count on internal options such as Gallardo, Carlos Villanueva and Manny Parra to keep the rotation afloat, so he imported only reliever Scott Linebrink before the trading deadline.
Zambrano, signed to a five-year contract extension on Aug. 17, will be paid $18.3 million per season in the new deal, a record for a pitcher willing to work a full season (that is, in the non-Roger Clemens division). Yet the Cubs are only 14-13 in his starts, including a loss to San Francisco last week. He starts the Wednesday game, either against Sheets, Capuano or Villanueva (it's Vargas' turn, but he's headed to the DL).
At least Zambrano doesn't mind the attention. In spring training, he predicted the Cubs would go to the World Series and he would win the Cy Young. Neither of those possibilities is completely out of the question, but at this point, Zambrano (14-10, 3.95) is working without a safety net.
5. What will it take to win the Central?
In the 38 years of divisional play, 22 team champions have been crowned with fewer than 90 victories. A 23rd seems almost certain, and it's not out of the question that the Central will produce a new all-time low-water mark.
San Diego won the NL West with an 82-80 record two years ago, matching the 1973 New York Mets (82-79) for the distinction of fewest wins for a playoff team in a non-strike season.
The Cubs are currently on a pace to win 83 games. If they can go 19-14 the rest of the way, they'll finish with 85 victories and force Milwaukee (20-12) and St. Louis (22-13) to have great finishes to catch them. If they go 14-19, they'll finish 80-82 and the Central might wind up with one of the silliest playoff participants in history.
"We're down to five weeks of baseball,'' Piniella said. "It'll be fun.''
Somebody's going to enjoy it, anyway.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through Amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).