Confident Brewers ‘not looking back at the Cubs,’ closer Knebel says

From the All-Star break through the end of last season, the Cubs outplayed the Cardinals by 10½ games and the Brewers by 16 games. Raise your hand if you’d bet on history repeating itself to such a full-blown extent. Anyone? Didn’t think so.

Yet those numbers might give some comfort to fidgety fans of the Cubs, who started the second half tied with the Cardinals at 5½ games behind the first-place Brewers in the National League Central. The big addition Thursday of former White Sox lefty Jose Quintana, who’ll make his Cubs debut Sunday in Baltimore, only increases the talent edge that still undoubtedly favors the defending World Series champions.

That edge won’t disappear no matter who else — Sonny Gray? Chris Archer? David Ross? (kidding) — enters the division mix.

That’s not to suggest the 2017 Cubs are striking fear into their rivals.

Closer Corey Knebel (right) and the first-place Brewers learned a thing or two about having fun from last year's Cubs. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

“No,” All-Star Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez said over the break in Miami. “We are a team that’s playing well. And we feel we can beat anybody.”

The Cardinals have won 10 of their last 15 games, a blistering tear by Central standards. But the more serious threat to unseat the Cubs seems to have risen in Milwaukee, where the Brewers — despite having only one All-Star, 25-year-old closer Corey Knebel — are bent on winning the division for what would be only the second time in 20 seasons since they moved from the American League.

“We’re not looking back at the Cubs,” Knebel said. “We’re not looking back, period. We’re just going to keep moving forward. Even if Chicago is right there, or St. Louis or Pittsburgh, we’ve got to keep our heads on right and keep moving forward. And that’s the great thing about our team. That’s exactly what we’ll do.”

The Cubs have won five of nine games against the Brewers this season, but the last one — an 11-2 Brewers victory at Wrigley Field on July 6 — might’ve been a message about what’s to come. The Cubs’ guests were none too pleased to be playing a makeup game on what should’ve been a day off, and they went off for seven angry runs in the third inning.

It was a great coming-together moment for the Brewers, who had noted the ridiculousness of the Cubs’ postponement of the originally scheduled game on a day when nary a raindrop fell. Their dugout was the kind of party scene Cubs fans routinely enjoyed glimpses of a year ago.

“You know what? That’s it right there,” Knebel said when asked about that day. “We have great talent, but talent doesn’t always win. What we really have is great chemistry. If you don’t have a family, then sometimes it doesn’t work.

“You saw that with Chicago last year. Honestly, I was a big fan of the way they [enjoyed] themselves. David Ross, especially; the guy was awesome. They had such a great chemistry. Chemistry wins — always.”

Of course, winning and good chemistry tend to go together, probably in a chicken-or-egg sort of way. There’s no doubt the young Brewers’ overall vibe is a better one this season. There’s no doubt the Cubs’ vibe isn’t what it was.

According to Knebel, these Brewers were influenced — not envious of, but motivated — by the wall-to-wall Festival of Cub last season. And there are several pieces in the lineup that weren’t there this time last year for the Cubs to kick around. Stars or not, shortstop Orlando Arcia, third baseman Travis Shaw, right fielder Domingo Santana and first baseman Eric Thames have moved this team forward.

If the Cubs could win a World Series, why can’t the Brewers win a division?

“That’s all we’re thinking about, especially after what the Cubs did last year,” Knebel said. “It was awesome, and they did it with such a young team. We’ve got the same thing this year.”

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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