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Cubs shake off pitching concerns, tightening race to beat Brewers 3-0

“Just one question?” a reporter asked Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. as he leaned into his locker to pick up his practice shoes before Tuesday’s game against the Brewers.

“No, I’m not panicking,” Almora said on cue, without so much as lifting his eyes.

And then the Cubs played their most pivotal game of the season to date and beat the second-place Brewers 3-0 thanks to a surging Jose Quintana and a sloppy second inning by the Brewers.

What, these guys panic?

Quintana improved to 3-0 with a 1.84 ERA in his last five starts after pitching into the seventh to beat the Brewers.

“We can continue to get punched in the face and we’ll take the blows,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “And then we’ll be ready to play [the next day], no matter what happens.”

Lester

They’ll need all of that fight and a good cut man in their corner to survive just the next week — never mind the Brewers and Cardinals over the final 18 games of the season. The red-hot Brewers aren’t going anywhere, even after the Cubs play them for the final time this season Wednesday.

It was only Monday that the Brewers cut the Cubs’ division lead to one, and the Cubs’ ace, Jon Lester, left that game with tightness in his back that still bothered him Tuesday.

“Conditions are not always ideal,” Cubs veteran utilityman Ben Zobrist said. “But there’s no crying in baseball.”

The Cubs are in the midst of a final stretch like they haven’t seen in four years of contention. In 2015? No pressure as they rolled to a wild-card berth. And no pressure by September 2016 in their wire-to-wire jaunt that season. Even last year, after they caught the Brewers in the second half, their lead was never less than two games in September, and then for only three days before a 15-4 finish.

If this is a problem, “it’s a good problem to have,” said Almora, who welcomed the playoff feel.

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That includes road-weary legs as the Cubs near the end of a 23-games-in-23-days stretch, with the likelihood of 30 in 30 if their makeup game in Washington is played Thursday, as planned.

“There shouldn’t be panic,” said reliever Pedro Strop, who converted his 13th save in 17 chances, “because we were behind and we caught up and took the [division] lead. We know it’s going to be a battle because [the Brewers] have a really good team. Even the Cardinals are really good. That’s what makes it fun. If you don’t have somebody to fight, it’s not going to be fun.”

The Cardinals remain only 3½ games out.

And Lester’s status for his next start is uncertain — potentially throwing a sizeable wrench into the next week or more.

“They have really good drugs and good doctors, and I’ll be fine,” Lester said, joking with reporters while talking about a back issue that still needed treatment and resolution. “The way I feel today, it’s not great, but I wouldn’t imagine missing any time.”

If the Cubs play Thursday, Lester’s spot comes up again Saturday. If Hurricane Florence pushes that game to Oct. 1, they can manipulate Lester’s schedule to push him back as far as Sept. 19 before needing to consider an alternative.

“That would be something to consider,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But once we pass that moment, we’ll sit down and consider it. Let’s just wait a little bit longer.”

One bright spot for the rotation is that Quintana is pitching his best at the ideal time. He improved to 3-0 with a 1.84 ERA in his last five starts and says he feels invigorated by the pennant race.

“You feel energy and an atmosphere around you,” he said. “That’s huge.”

At the very least, the Cubs face the kind of final-stretch sprint they have not experienced in the Maddon-Theo Epstein era.

“There’s no question the character in the clubhouse and the mettle of certain people here is what we need,” Zobrist said. “We’ve seen it happen the last few years, and we rose to the occasion before, so I think we’re in a good spot.”