(Updated: UPDATES Milwaukee is 3 games behind Colorado in wild-card race)
The race for the National League Central takes center stage Friday as the Chicago Cubs begin a critical three-game series against the visiting Milwaukee Brewers, who stumble into the weekend after losing three straight games in Cincinnati. Chicago has won eight of its last 11 contests and leads the division by five games over the Brewers and St. Louis.
Ian Happ had three hits and Albert Almora Jr. delivered a two-run homer in Thursday’s 8-2 win over Pittsburgh as the Cubs battled through a 52-minute rain delay and improved to 34-18 since the All-Star break. Third baseman Kris Bryant, who leads the Cubs with 95 runs scored, doubled in five at-bats Thursday and has reached base safely in 32 consecutive starts. First baseman Eric Thames is batting .143 over his last 49 at-bats for Milwaukee, which is three games behind Colorado for the second wild card in the NL. “Obviously, this is a big weekend,” Brewers catcher Stephen Vogt told reporters. “It’s a chance for us to make a move in the division and gain some momentum into the last couple of weeks. It’s huge.”
TV: 8:05 p.m. ET, FSN Wisconsin (Milwaukee), WGN (Chicago)
PITCHING MATCHUP: Brewers RH Jimmy Nelson (11-6, 3.59 ERA) vs. Cubs RH John Lackey (11-10, 4.74)
Nelson recorded his second straight victory last Friday with 11 strikeouts over seven shutout innings in a 1-0 win over Washington. The 28-year-old retired 13 of the final 14 batters he faced and tied his career high in strikeouts while registering his 17th quality start of the season. Bryant is 5-for-25 with six strikeouts against Nelson, who is 1-6 with a 4.08 ERA in 14 career games (12 starts) against Chicago, including a 6.35 ERA in two outings this season.
After struggling in his previous two starts, Lackey turned in one of his best outings of the season last Friday against Atlanta, allowing three hits over seven shutout innings. The 38-year-old native of Texas has pitched well at Wrigley Field since the beginning of July, going 3-0 with a 2.48 ERA in his last five home starts. Thames has gone 5-for-11 with one home run against Lackey, who owns a 6-3 record and 3.45 ERA in 13 career starts against Milwaukee.
1. Brewers LF Ryan Braun is one home run away from 300 for his career.
2. The Cubs are 9-1 in Lackey’s last 10 starts.
3. Milwaukee’s 3.61 runs per game since the All-Star break ranks last in the majors.
PREDICTION: Brewers 6, Cubs 4