MILWAUKEE -- The major-league season is barely a week old, but it will almost certainly be a playoff-like atmosphere at Miller Park this weekend as the Milwaukee Brewers face the Chicago Cubs in a four-game series.
After leading the National League Central -- and the defending World Series champs -- for most of the summer, only to fall down the stretch, the Brewers set their sights squarely on catching the Cubs over the winter.
But while Brewers general manager David Stearns bolstered what had been a feast-or-famine lineup by adding outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, Milwaukee was quiet when it came to the starting pitching market and instead opted to stick with a crop of internal candidates while adding Jhoulys Chacin as they waited for Jimmy Nelson to return.
That decision, so far, has not played out as well as the Brewers might have hoped. Milwaukee's starters struggled against the Cardinals, posting a combined 6.07 ERA over the past three games.
"We need better efforts from (the starting rotation) to be a consistently winning team but it's one time around here, one series," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "But having said that, the bullpen has been dynamite."
Brent Suter will try to buck the trend as he makes his second start of the season for Milwaukee. The left-hander makes up for low velocity with an unnervingly quick pace, something he used to his advantage against San Diego last week. He was the winning pitcher in that game, allowing five hits and three runs in five innings.
Suter faced the Cubs four times last season, including twice as a starter, and went 1-0 with a 3.29 ERA.
The Cubs will counter left-hander Jon Lester, who couldn't get out of the fourth inning in his Opening Day start against the Marlins. He gave up seven hits and four runs (three earned) in 3 1/3 innings but was not the losing pitcher as the Cubs won the game.
"I wasn't throwing strikes and I wasn't finishing guys," Lester said. "I had no breaking ball. There were a few things we need to adjust on and make better."
He'll be working on a full week's rest after rain snuffed out his last scheduled turn, Tuesday at Cincinnati, which gave the Cubs two days to rest before meeting the Brewers in Milwaukee Thursday night.
Lester did not face Milwaukee last season and is 3-2 with a 2.77 ERA in six career starts against the Brewers.
The two teams' last series was one of the more memorable in the rivalry's history. The Cubs arrived looking to snuff out Milwaukee's fading hopes at regaining the division lead. Each of the first three games of the four-game September set went 10 innings. Chicago took the first two and was a strike away from winning the third in regulation but Orlando Arcia hit a game-tying home run off closer Wade Davis. Jon Jay put the Cubs up in the 10th with an RBI single but a walk-off home run from Travis Shaw in the bottom of the inning gave Milwaukee the victory.
Jose Quintana, the Cubs' marquee midseason acquisition, shut Milwaukee out in the finale and the Cubs went on to win the division crown.
"Regular season-wise, that was the best series I've ever been a part of," Shaw said. "That was as dramatic and as close to a playoff atmosphere as you can get. They were all well-pitched, well-defended games," said Shaw. "It seems like every time we play (the Cubs) it's a pretty good battle. Everybody is excited to get it going."