The Cubs and the Brewers are finally done playing this season.
But make no mistake: Neither of the top contenders in the National League Central is done with the other.
“They’re definitely coming for us. We can feel it,” said Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks after the Brewers’ 5-1 victory Wednesday night squeezed the Cubs’ lead in the division to one game over the second-place Brewers.
As tough as it looked losing this series to the Brewers, it only gets tougher from here, as they continue a 30-day stretch without a day off with a one-day detour Thursday to Washington for a makeup game before resuming their homestand Friday against the Reds.
They’re 13-9 so far in that stretch with losses in four of their last five games, and six of nine since they owned a season-high five-game lead in the division Sept. 2.
“We’re still in first place,” said Javy Baez, one of three strikeout victims of Brewers relief ace Josh Hader in the eighth inning. “I’m not worried about that because we know what we can do as a team. If we keep playing with [struggles], we’re going to have pressure, we’re going to keep having pressure on us. You’ve got to go out there and play.
“Nobody is going to beat us if we go out there and play.”
Whether they admit it or not, fatigue is becoming a factor.
“It’s going to sound like an excuse, but we do need a rest,” manager Joe Maddon said. “They just need to lay the body down for one day.”
That’s not happening anytime soon for a team that has two more games to play down the stretch than each of their rivals from Milwaukee and St. Louis.
Thursday’s makeup of Sunday’s rainout in Washington is just the start of a 17-game fight for their October lives, including a three-day trip to Arizona starting Monday, a three-game season-ender against the Cardinals at home and a lone, compromised day off in between when they arrive back in Chicago around 5 a.m. following the Arizona trip.
“It’s a pretty bad scenario for sure,” said Hendricks (11-11), who allowed two runs in five innings before being lifted for a pinch hitter. “But we’ve been through so much adversity; we’ve had some tough trips in the past, even in the playoffs we’ve had some brutal travel days.
“I think it kind of makes you tougher in the end. So that’s the approach we take: Don’t count us out. Kind of a little bit of an underdog. But we’ll make it through this stretch all right.”
At the very least, it promises to be the most compelling finish for the Cubs since their four-year competitive window began in 2015.
Pressure? Anxiety? At least a different vibe this time around?
“Nothing changes,” said center fielder Albert Almora Jr., who spent much of Wednesday night filling a defensive highlight reel against Travis Shaw, Christian Yelich and Mike Moustakas.
“There’s a few more cameras, a lot more media people,” Almora said. “But it’s got that good feel, that feel of playoff baseball. And that’s what we play for. That’s where we want to be; we want to be in this situation where we’re competing for a World Series.”
They’ll have the Brewers — and possibly the third-place Cardinals — to contend with in the division before they get too far into that thought process.
After winning eight of the first nine against the Brewers this season, the Cubs lost seven of the final 10 meetings. They haven’t won a series against Milwaukee since April.
“It’s been outstanding all year actually. We kind of got them a little bit early, but I knew that was not going to sustain itself. They’re a different team than they were early,” said Maddon, pointing to trades the Brewers made to better balance their lineup and bench, and moves to strengthen their pitching. So none of this is surprising.”