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Cubs fire opening salvo in pennant race as team splits series with Brewers

David Bote and Anthony Rizzo celebrate Rizzo's two-run homer in the first Wednesday. Bote added two hits and a defensive gem at third base in the 8-4 victory over the Brewers. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

A popular press box wag in Pittsburgh noted on Twitter Wednesday that former Pirates manager Jim Leyland used to say the pennant race starts on Aug. 15.

The National League Central-leading Cubs marked the occasion by beating the second-place Brewers 8-4 for a two-game swing in the standings, then spent much of the postgame media mixer downplaying the importance.

“We’ve played a lot of meaningful games,” said Anthony Rizzo, who was dropped from the leadoff spot for the first time since July 11, then got the day started with a two-out, two-run homer from the cleanup spot in the first. “Even if we lose, we know not to hang our hat on it.”

The first 4½ months of the season have seared that point into the minds of a Cubs group looking for the first four-year streak of playoff seasons in franchise history.

“If you want to ride the emotional roller coaster, man, it will wipe you out,” said manager Joe Maddon after his team played a game without trailing at any point for only the 32nd time in 119 games — one day after a 7-0 loss to the Brewers.

“Psychologically there was a lot of folks that would have been running for the hills if we had lost,” Maddon said with a smirk. “There’s still a long way to go.”

The Brewers are still just three games back. The third-place Cardinals are hot and were just four games back entering Wednesday.

And the Cubs now hit the road for 17 of their next 24 games, including four games starting Thursday in Leyland’s old Pittsburgh stomping grounds.

“It’s a fun time to play baseball, especially in the Central,” said right fielder Jason Heyward, who doubled twice, singled and drove in two runs.

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If nothing else, the Cubs got encouraging signs one day after a hitter’s meeting from a lineup that awoke for 13 hits, including seven that were hit up the middle or to the opposite field — a point of emphasis for the coaching staff.

More important, Kyle Hendricks looked like his playoff-caliber self for much of his six-inning start — striking out five of the first eight batters he faced (four swinging) and allowing only two runs until a pair of runners he left on base scored against the bullpen in the seventh.

Never mind the up-and-down production from the lineup this season, especially lately.

With strong fielding and a stout bullpen in place, it’s the starting rotation that will decide whether this team closes out another division title over the final 43 games or lets it slip away.

“I’ll take starting pitching any day of the week over everything else,” Maddon said. “This game could have been called ‘pitching’ as opposed to ‘baseball.’ So I’ll take pitching first, and then after that I want the offense to kind of match up with that. … But always dig on the pitching.”

Despite the recent struggles of Jon Lester and Jose Quintana — and a 5.41 overall rotation ERA since the All-Star break — Hendricks said the rotation is on the brink of a roll. Especially with newly acquired Cole Hamels already making an impact in his first three starts with the Cubs.

“I think we’re there,” Hendricks (9-9) said. “We have everything we need right now. Guys are throwing the ball well. Hamels is providing so much energy. He’s been throwing the ball unbelievable, so we’re kind of building off him right now.

“The pitching’s there. Going down the stretch, the games that we’re going to need it will be big, and it’ll show up.”

It’s looking more likely that a September boost could come from $126 million starter Yu Darvish, who hasn’t pitched since May because of elbow soreness but could start a minor-league rehab assignment Sunday in South Bend, pending Thursday’s bullpen session.

Barring a setback, it could put him back in the rotation the first or second week of September.

Meanwhile, the Cubs are all about Leyland’s calendar.

“This is the time we love and we thrive in,” Hendricks said. “And it’s going to be a lot of fun this last month and a half, for sure.”