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Longtime rivals raise difficulty of 10-game homestand for Brewers

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MILWAUKEE — Dropping two games to the lowly Detroit Tigers was a frustrating follow-up to one of their most dominating series of the season, but the Milwaukee Brewers return Friday to American Family Field for the final homestand of the season still in control of their postseason destiny.

Milwaukee’s magic number to clinch the NL Central title remains at five games after the back-to-back losses in Detroit, meaning any combination of five Brewers victories or losses by the Cardinals, who have passed the Reds for second place in the division, punches their ticket for a fourth consecutive playoff berth.

It’s an exciting position to be in, especially after the down-to-the-wire scrambles that have become commonplace during the last four Septembers.

“A homestand always gets everybody excited, no matter what,” manager Craig Counsell said. “But the three games against the Cubs, that’s what’s next on our list.”

Those three games likely won’t be the cakewalk some might have expected when the Cubs essentially waved a white flag by trading away stars Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and closer Craig Kimbrel ahead of the trade deadline.

Chicago, still well below .500 and eliminated from playoff contention, has shown signs of life over the past few weeks by winning 10 of 15 games. As the Brewers were reminded during their two-game set against the Tigers, young, hungry players with little to play for tend to look at matchups against contenders as their own personal playoff series.

Players such as third baseman 30-year-old Patrick Wisdom, who just broke Bryant’s record for home runs as a rookie, have been slumping this month but are still trying to play his way into the team’s future plans.

Frank Schwindel, who took over for Rizzo at first base, has become something of a folk hero in Wrigleyville after batting .362/.409/.684 with 12 home runs, 35 RBIs and a 1.093 OPS since he was traded from Oakland at the deadline. He went 4-for-12 with two doubles and a home run during a four-game series against the Brewers in Chicago last month and took a five-game hitting streak into the Cubs’ game against the Phillies on Thursday.

Add in the extra intensity that comes with a heated rivalry and the almost-certain influx of Cubs fans making their presence known, the weekend has all the warning signs of a potential “trap series.”

“The Cubs are playing great baseball and have been playing good since we left Chicago,” said starting right-hander Brandon Woodruff.

The schedule doesn’t get any easier when the Cubs leave town. Milwaukee’s homestand continues Monday when the Brewers open a four-game series against St. Louis, which has won five in a row and seven of its last 10 to pass the Reds and take a 1½-game lead for the second NL wild card spot.

Aside from looking to lock down its own postseason berth, the St. Louis will be dead set on at least delaying Milwaukee’s march to a title. With three more meetings the following week in St. Louis, the Cardinals are holding on to the slim hope of somehow catching fire and catching the Brewers in the divisional standings.

The homestand concludes next weekend with three games against the Mets, who’ve fallen 5½ games back of the NL East-leading Braves and sit four back of St. Louis in the wild card race.

They face the Phillies this weekend, then travel to Boston for a two-game interleague set before visiting Milwaukee. A strong showing over the next few days, combined with the Brewers taking care of business against the Cardinals, could make that series difficult as well.

“It isn’t easy,” Woodruff said. “There’s going to be some tough games and we know that. We’re getting prepared for that so hopefully, we can play some good baseball at home, clinch and get this thing out of the way so we can get focused on the postseason.”

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