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Embattled Brewers think they can race alongside Cubs to the finish line

The Brewers' Jesus Aguilar. (AP/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON — Brewers All-Star outfielder Christian Yelich wasn’t sure he wanted to go down the road of predicting how the division race between his upstart team and the powerhouse Cubs will play out.

“We’ve had a lot of other things to worry about lately, the last few days,” he said.

He was referring to both the Brewers’ six-game losing streak heading into the break — which left them 2½ games behind the Cubs in the NL Central — and the swirling trade rumors surrounding Manny Machado. But mostly the former.

Little did Yelich know that, mere hours later, his teammate and fellow All-Star Josh Hader would be at the eye of a tempest when old tweets surfaced — while Hader was on the mound at Nationals Park — that were laced with racist and anti-gay language.

“I’m ready for any consequences that happen for what happened seven years ago,” Hader, appearing stunned, said after the game.

As the baseball world waited Wednesday for the next step of the Hader controversy to play out, the Brewers had to be reflecting on just how promising things seemed less than two weeks ago. They were in first place. They were reportedly in the hunt for Machado. And they soon would send a franchise-record five players to the All-Star Game.

The question is: Can these Brewers — undoubtedly stacked with more talent than they were a season ago — get their act together and reverse their second-half fade-out of 2017?

Milwaukee led the division at the break last year with a 5½-game lead over the Cubs and Cardinals but went 36-35 from there while the Cubs sizzled at 49-25.

Those Brewers didn’t have outfielders Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, who arrived in January via trade and free-agent signing, respectively. Nor did they have first baseman Jesus Aguilar slugging like an MVP candidate. Nor did they have Hader performing as one of baseball’s most dominant lefty relievers.

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Yelich, Cain, Aguilar, Hader and reliever Jeremy Jeffress all were All-Stars.

“Five is a lot,” Yelich said. “We’ve gotten contributions from a lot of guys on this club.

“We’re a group that finds a way to get it done. I think it’s going to end up being pretty close between us [and the Cubs]. I don’t think anyone will run away with it.”

Aguilar, the league leader with 24 home runs, points to the June series between the rivals in Milwaukee as the biggest moment of the first half. After the Cubs won an extra-innings opener of the three-game series to move to a hard-to-believe 8-1 head-to-head this season, the Brewers fought back with a pair of shutout victories.

“That was a great moment,” Aguilar said. “We started winning lots of games after those two games.”

According to Aguilar, the talent gap between the teams is essentially nonexistent.

“We’re kind of even, so let’s play,” he said. “Let’s have fun. Let’s battle and see what happens at the end of the season.

“We were playing good last year, but Chicago did a great job. I think this year’s going to be a little bit different. We’re playing really good. They’ve got a lot of good guys, but we’ve got the same thing.”

Hader himself weighed in hours before controversy struck.

“We have a very good team,” he said. “If we focus on ourselves and play the ball that we know we can play, everything will take care of itself. As long as we do the right things, everything will definitely turn out right.”