Cubs

With back-to-back shutouts of Cubs, Brewers are back — to stay — in the fight

MILWAUKEE — Monday was a haymaker. Monday would have left a lesser opponent in the dirt. Monday — when the Cubs came back to beat the Brewers in 11 innings to run their record to 8-1 in the season series — gave the National League Central’s bully a prime opportunity to step on an upstart rival’s neck.

‘‘That was great to see,’’ team president Theo Epstein said of a victory that moved the Cubs into first place by a half-game. ‘‘I thought that was probably some of our best focus and intensity of the year.’’

Indeed, Tuesday looked promising. But then the Cubs failed to score in the second game of this three-game set, a 4-0 defeat. Wednesday came, and the Cubs were blanked 1-0. Back-to-back shutout losses to the Brewers hadn’t happened to a Cubs team since 2006, but that’s beside the point. The Brewers now lead the division by 1½ games, but that’s beside the point, too.

These Brewers aren’t going anywhere. Rather than step on their necks, the Cubs let them get up, dust themselves off and puff out their best-record-in-the-NL (41-27) chests. The fight is back on.

The addition of Lorenzo Cain has changed the Brewers-Cubs mix. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Yep, that’s the point.

‘‘They’re a good team, obviously, and what they’ve done the last few years kind of speaks for itself,’’ Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich said. ‘‘But by no means are [we] intimidated by that or think that we can’t compete with them.’’

And to think that much of the talk after the Cubs’ victory Monday was about whether they had burrowed deep into the Brewers’ heads and taken up residence. The Cubs had shut out the Brewers a hard-to-believe five times in nine games and were well on their way to winning the season series for the fifth consecutive season. Were the players in the Brewers’ clubhouse already running low on belief?

‘‘I mean, listen, that’s [just] a dialogue,’’ Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. ‘‘There’s none of that really happening. . . . We almost should be grateful we won one out of three.’’

Anyone who’s simply assuming the Cubs will outclass the Brewers in 2018 ought to take a deep breath and prepare to consider why that’s foolish.

A season ago, the Brewers were the best team in the division through the first half and ended with 86 victories — one game out of a wild-card spot. The offseason additions they made to that team have left them in far better shape.

They signed free-agent center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who has been formidable at the top of the order and drove in the only run of the game Wednesday on a third-inning home run against Mike Montgomery.

The Brewers also signed free-agent right-hander Jhoulys Chacin, who threw six scoreless innings to outduel Montgomery and — are you ready for this? — hasn’t taken an ‘‘L’’ since April 4. The Brewers are 10-1 in his last 11 starts. And they traded for Yelich, a terrific talent who’s batting .302 behind Cain.

By comparison, the Cubs essentially added right-handers Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood — how’s that working out so far? — and bid farewell to Jake Arrieta.

These Brewers are good, and they know it.

‘‘Oh, yeah,’’ Cain said. ‘‘We can play over here.’’

The Cubs know it, too.

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‘‘We had a good start against them, but they’re a good team,’’ Montgomery said. ‘‘And just this rivalry, it’s going to create a good atmosphere and good games. And we’re going to have to be on top of our game.’’

Montgomery also said he expects this race to last well into September, which is the big idea around these parts, too.

Cain looks around the clubhouse and sees a lot of similar pieces and an overall vibe that are familiar to what he had in Kansas City in 2015. Those Royals weren’t laden with superstars, but they could pitch, they could defend and they were timely hitters. They were greater than the sum of their parts.

And you’d better believe they weren’t intimidated by anybody.

‘‘We were special,’’ Cain said. ‘‘And this team can be special, too. This Brewers-Cubs rivalry is special. It’s definitely exciting. I’m happy to be a part of it.’’

Yes, the Cubs’ 8-3 head-to-head advantage against the Brewers is significant. Without it, the gap between first place and second in the division would be no joke.

But here’s another trend to think about, for whatever it’s worth: The Brewers’ 1-0 victory was the 16th time in 23 opportunities this season that they’ve come out on the better end of a one-run game. That means they’re pretty clutch. That means they’ve got their act together.

The Cubs’ record in one-run games? Try 6-11 on for size. No, it’s not a very comfortable fit.

‘‘We’re a good baseball team, and we know they’re a good baseball team,’’ Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. ‘‘This series wasn’t going to decide anything.’’

No, but had the Cubs swept it or even won two out of three, the narrative of their dominance of the Brewers would have persisted. Instead, this race is about the chase. The Brewers are out in front. It’s going to be more difficult than it was a year ago for the Cubs to pass them, let alone leave them in the dust.