In hungry, angry Brewers, Cubs see younger version of themselves

PITTSBURGH — If the Brewers seem chapped when they play the Cubs on Friday in their series opener, it might not completely be about the mind games they apparently think the Cubs have inflicted upon them — with the “rainout” on that sunny day in May or the switch to a nighttime start Friday to accommodate the Cubs’ late-night travel.

“Yeah, we’re switching it back to a day game tomorrow,” one dugout wise guy cracked Thursday.

OK, maybe that’s a big part of the chip on the Brewers’ shoulders coming into what might be the closest thing to a must-win series they’ll face in this year of upstart contention.

The Cubs’ 8-2 victory over the Pirates on Thursday pushed their lead over the idle Brewers to five games heading into a final stretch of 22 games that includes seven apiece against the Brewers and Cardinals, who are also five games back.

Javy Baez slides home safely on Rene Rivera's squeeze bunt in the second inning Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

But a bigger reason for that chip might be something first baseman Anthony Rizzo — who delivered his 101st and 102nd RBI — said looks very familiar.

“Flashback to 2012 and ’13, when we’d maybe go and play the Cardinals and beat them two out of three or play the Brewers, who were very good then, and we wanted to beat them,” Rizzo said of the Cubs’ early rebuilding years. “I see that in them: a young team doing really good things this year that wants to prove themselves every single game, every single day. Very similar to us.”

The Brewers’ surge into late-season relevance might be a year or so early, as measured by their rebuilding plans and experience.

But that didn’t stop the 2015 Cubs from shocking the rest of baseball with 97 wins and two rounds of playoff victories. Manager Joe Maddon preached early that season those talented Cubs needed only to learn how to beat the incumbent Cardinals.

The Cubs then beat the Cardinals in six of their last nine regular-season meetings before knocking them out of the playoffs.

“Yeah, you have to take things. Things aren’t given to you,” Maddon said. “I’m sure the Brewers feel the same way, no question. It’s good. It’s good for our division. It’s good for baseball. I love the competition.”

The Cubs are coming off a four-game split in Pittsburgh, with Jon Lester battling through command issues early to get through six innings Thursday. The Brewers got swept in Cincinnati this week, but they’ve lined up their top three starters for the weekend.

“The minute you think you’re in control is the minute you get bit in the rear end,” said Lester, who shook off the “rust” in his second game back from the disabled list to retire the last seven he faced.

Jon Lester (10-7), Thursday’s winning pitcher, and his Cubs are the Seahawks of the NL Central.

“They’ll be ready,” Maddon said. “It’s a mental challenge as much as anything.

“Just as they want to establish their turf, we don’t want to give up ours, either.”

Then come the Cardinals next weekend — and back-to-back series against both rivals a week later.

How the Cubs finish is all mental at this point, Maddon said.

“I talked about the heartbeat last year,” Maddon said. “It’s going to show up over the next couple weeks again.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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