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Miller time for Cubs: Showdown in Brew Town opens 15-game test

Of course the Cubs are scoreboard-watching.

“There’s no denying you do that,” manager Joe Maddon said, less than 24 hours after his Cubs took over sole possession of first place in the National League Central for the first time since May. “I do that. We all do that.”

It’s especially tempting when the now-second-place Milwaukee Brewers play early, as they did Thursday, losing 15-2 against the Washington Nationals before the Cubs saw a pitch against the White Sox.

But the hottest team in the division can skip the scoreboard for the next three days; the Cubs descend on Milwaukee for the start of a 15-game stretch that could help define their second half.

Jose Quintana makes his third start for the Cubs in Friday's opener of their big series against the Brewers.

On paper it’s easily the toughest part of the schedule the rest of the way for the Cubs — including six against the wild-card-positioned Arizona Diamondbacks and three against the NL East-leading Nationals after the Brewers.

After the Cubs finish the second of their two series against the Diamondbacks on Aug. 13, only nine games remain against any team that currently has a winning record. Seven of those are against the Brewers, along with two in September at Tampa Bay.

“It might be only contenders [in that stretch]. It’s a really good time to [try to] stay in first place,” Cubs newcomer Jose Quintana said.

Quintana, who’s 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in two starts since being traded from the Sox, talks with excitement about the first pennant race of his career as he prepares to start Friday in Milwaukee to open the key stretch.

“It’s a really good series, a big series for us,” he said. “But our approach never changes. We just keep going, man. Trying to stay hot in the second half.”

The Cubs certainly have done that since the All-Star break. Their 6-3 win over the Sox on Thursday gave them an 11-2 record since the break and a 1½-game lead over the Brewers in the division. They have made up seven games on the Brewers in that span, and if they beat the Brewers on Friday, they’ll have their largest division lead of the season.

“Obviously, we’re all human, and we know what’s going on,” Jon Lester said after pitching seven impressive innings for the victory Thursday. “But at the same time we can’t look at it as that.

“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves and worry about the standings and what-ifs and where does that put us if we win two out of three. We’ve just got to worry about tomorrow.”

The difference between the last two weeks and what the next two weeks promises is the quality of the opponents, with the also-ran Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, St.  Louis Cardinals and Sox creating a relatively soft landing out of the break.

“For me, the key is to keep playing like we’ve been playing the last two weeks,” said red-hot catcher Willson Contreras. “We know that we’re facing the Brewers and that we’re facing Arizona and then the Nationals. We know they’re pretty good teams that could go to the playoffs.

“But if we keep playing like [the last two weeks], it doesn’t matter who we’re facing. It doesn’t matter who’s going to pitch or who’s going to hit. You have to just keep going and stay confident.”

Confidence. Look no further than Quintana’s crew in the starting rotation.

With Lester’s performance, the Cubs’ rotation improved to 10-0 with a 2.50 ERA since the break.

It’s no wonder Jake Arrieta said, after beating the Sox on Wednesday night, “We feel like we have the group to separate ourselves at this point in time and remain in first place the remainder of the way.”

Maddon warned of “baseball karma” and falling into the trap of big talk that sets you up to be seen as failures for falling short.

But he also seemed to buy into Arrieta’s thinking.

“It’s about time for that,” he said. “We’re playing on that level right now.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com


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