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‘No tight butts’ as Cubs rally to beat Brewers in 11 for NL Central lead

MILWAUKEE – If the Cubs could experience winter in April, why not October in June?

With more than a month to go before the All-Star break, the Cubs are in the kind of stretch that could set a tone for the rest of their season, if not the National League Central race – never mind the chance to take over sole possession of first place for the first time since April.

“It feels good. It’s fun playing here,” said Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, whose first-pitch homer opened the Cubs’ five-run 11th inning in a 7-2 victory over the Brewers that put the Cubs in first place by a half-game with 99 to play.

“They have a good team. The fans are into it; they’re engaged,” Rizzo added of a surprisingly electric atmosphere for a Monday night in June in Milwaukee. “You’ve got the Cubs fans and the Brewers fans going at it all game. These are tough games. We know they’re tough games. It’s just which way the ball’s going to fall. For us, fortunately, this year, they’ve fallen our way.”

Rizzo watches a home run fly in Milwaukee earlier this season.

The Cubs’ eighth victory in nine games against the Brewers this season was also the Cubs’ 12th in 15 games overall – that surge making up 5½ games on the Brewers and giving the Cubs the best record in the National League.

Despite the 8-1 dominance first glance, most of the teams’ meetings this year have been as tightly contested as this one. Even in the Cubs’ victories, the Brewers have held the Cubs to three or fewer runs in five of those eight.

As much as anything, that might speak to the Cubs’ huge advantage over the Brewers in big-stage games and moments over the past three-plus seasons. The Cubs’ three consecutive playoff appearances include the last two NL Central titles, 19 postseason victories and five postseason rounds won out of seven.

“Our guys are loose cannons in the dugout. There are no tight butts,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s kind of interesting to listen to the conversation, even in a tight game. They’re in the present tense, and that’s all I could ask for. There’s no tight butts.”

Rizzo, who pulled out a lighter colored bat modeled after the one h used in 2013 for the late innings, agreed with the big-game calm.

“I don’t think there’s ever any sense of panic with whatever happens,” he said. “They have a guy that’s unhittable [Josh Hader] come into the game and we somehow scratch a run off of him [in the eighth to tie] and no one’s fazed.”

And this was just the first of three in Milwaukee against the team that won 18 of 28 entering the series, with three more to follow for the Cubs against the rival Cardinals in St. Louis – culminating with a nationally televised Sunday night game.

Hostile environments?

“We love going to places where we’re not liked,” said Albert Almora Jr., who drove in the Cubs’ first run with a two-out single in the fifth and one of the 11th-inning runs with another two-out hit. “It brings the best out of us.”

It looked like it brought out the best of both teams. Ryan Braun even seemed to take it personally in left field — diving to rob Rizzo of a hit leading off the fourth and leaping at the wall to rob Willson Contreras of extra bases in the sixth.

Did the Brewers come into the series with chips on their shoulders?

“If I were them, for sure,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “We are who we are. There’s no hiding that. They play their style of baseball, and we play ours.”

They’ve played so well the last 2½ weeks that ace Jon Lester compared it to how the Cubs played during their wire-to-wire championship season in 2016.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before the game he likes what he’s seeing – especially defensively – but is looking for just two more developments from this year’s team.

“I’m waiting on a more consistent method scoring runs, when we get runners in scoring position,” he said. “And then really getting the starting pitching leveled out.”

No problem on either front on this night.

Cubs starter Jose Quintana, who already had beaten the Brewers twice this season and was 4-1 with a 0.63 ERA in six career starts against them, allowed only four hits in six innings Monday.

The only problem: Two of the hits were home runs, by Erik Kratz leading off the third and by Jonathan Villar with one out in the fifth. He retired all seven he faced in between and of 16 of the other 19 he faced overall. Katz’s homer snapped Quintana’s 26-inning scoreless streak against the Brewers.

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He trailed 2-1 as he handed the game to his bullpen.

As for hitting with men in scoring position, the Cubs didn’t press much for most of the game, if only because they didn’t have much opportunity until the eighth.

They had men in scoring position just twice through seven innings.

They were 4-for-6 after that.

After Rizzo’s homer in the 11th, Brewers reliever Matt Albers got two quick outs before the Cubs rallied for four more when the next five Cubs reached on a Javy Baez walk, Russell HBP, Ben Zobrist RBI single, Almora RBI single and Jason Heyward two-run double.