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Long division: Cubs stumble into Milwaukee for first NL Central showdown

The Cubs hope to raise Cain -- if not their victory total -- during this weekend's series in Milwaukee.

ATLANTA — Maybe it’s the fresh start the Cubs need.

Or maybe it’s going from the sweatbox into the inferno.

But after talking since December about how much tougher the National League Central got since last year, the stand-pat Cubs are about to find out just how much tougher when they open a three-game series Friday against the defending champion Brewers.

They go in stumbling, having lost the first two series to open the season, with things like bullpens, fielding and throwing strikes suddenly rising on the list of daily priorities.

“We’ve got to play well in our division,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m sure our guys will feel that. But I get so engrossed in just the day. Once I get there, maybe I’ll feel differently.”

For a team that blew late-inning leads in three of its first five games and committed six errors in another, the switch to familiar Miller Park, to face the team that caught them on the final weekend of last season for the division title, has the potential to add a different feel for the whole team.

“It’s obviously going to be intense all year in this division,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “It’s going to be a battle, probably some really, really intense games, which is going to lead to some good viewing for our audience.”

He said that during spring training, and the Brewers have jumped out to a 6-1 start to underscore the point.

That urgency stuff the Cubs have talked about for months? This is part of what that’s about, team president Theo Epstein said.

It’s about attitude and preparation in general, he said. And it’s important because of how last season ended so abruptly by such a razor-thin margin, he said.

“But most important, because the National League is really tough,” Epstein said. “The National League Central in particular has no soft spots. The margin for error is really small so the team that shows up ready to play and ready to execute on a consistent basis night in and night out is going to be ultimately rewarded. And no team is good enough to show up when they want to or wait until they’re in trouble to show up, and succeed in this division or this league.”

Perhaps especially against the Brewers, who have won five straight — and 14 of 15 regular-season games going back to the end of last year.

“I thought it was the best [division in baseball] last year,” Maddon said. “It’s gotten even better. It’s a tremendous challenge for us.”

The Cubs, who were forced to go to their bullpen in the fifth inning for starter Yu Darvish on Thursday night in Atlanta, maneuvered their rotation to make sure Crew-killer Jose Quintana was pitching.

He makes his first start of the season Friday in what could be a symbolic Opening Day start for the team if it sparks something.

Quintana, who pitched four innings in relief of Darvish last week in Texas, has a 1.62 career ERA against the Brewers — 1.55 in six starts at Miller Park (4-1 record).

The last time he saw the Brewers, he pitched five strong innings in the division tiebreaker won by Milwaukee after he left the game.

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Maybe the emotions of the rivalry will stir some dormant embers in the reeling Cubs — no matter what Cole Hamels thought of the Cubs-Brewers “rivalry” last September.

“I’ve been in rivalries. They’re not going to like me for the comment, but you can look at ticket sales,” Hamels said — just before the Brewers chased down the Cubs.

He pitches Saturday.

<em>The Brewers put their division-clinching celebration at Wrigley on their media guide cover. </em>
The Brewers put their division-clinching celebration at Wrigley on their media guide cover.