It's not October, but playoff atmosphere hits Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE -- What did the Chicago Cubs-Milwaukee Brewers rivalry want to be when it grew up?

This. A July series with muscle mass. Four games that matter. A packed Miller Park with the feel of a Texas-Oklahoma game at the Cotton Bowl (half Cubs fans, half Brewers fans).

"I think it's kind of like a dress rehearsal for postseason play," Milwaukee manager Ned Yost said. "It's exactly like the postseason. ... It's night-and-day different [from a regular series]. You don't have series like this in July. ... This is not an everyday occurrence."

The Cubs' and Brewers' seasons aren't going to turn on what happens here this week, but it could be partly defined by it. If nothing else, the standings in the NL Central are going to have a slightly different look to them.

For now.

Tuesday night's game deserved a Goodyear blimp and its very own dressing room trailer. Milwaukee's Ben Sheets vs. Chicago's Carlos Zambrano. The National League All-Star Game starting pitcher (Sheets), and the guy who followed him to the mound in New York (Big Z). It was the kind of matchup anybody could enjoy, including Cubs manager Lou Piniella.

"I'll enjoy it a hell of a lot more if Zambrano outpitches the guy," Piniella said about 90 minutes before the game.

He did. Sheets didn't even make it to the Sausage Races in the middle of the sixth inning. Yost pulled him after giving up six earnies and 11 hits. It tied a season high for earned runs by Sheets.

Meanwhile, Zambrano was, well, Zambrano. The guy might be the most compelling pitcher in the big leagues. Who else do you know who pitches eight scoreless innings with nine strikeouts, singles home a run and breaks a bat over his left knee after botching a sacrifice bunt? In 21 innings this season, Zambrano has given up exactly one run against the Brewers.

It isn't necessary to get into all the game-related specifics of the Cubs' 7-1 win. Let's just say Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun doesn't have to worry about making space for a Gold Glove anytime soon. Braun squares the bat on ball as well, if not better, than any player in the game. But the defense thing is a work in progress.

Anyway, he dove for Kosuke Fukudome's sinking line drive in the sixth, missed, and the Cubs ended up scoring five runs in the inning. The loss wasn't his fault (Yost said Braun had no choice but to dive for the liner), but he helped.

The Cubs are now three games ahead of the Brewers, four ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals, who obviously didn't get the e-mail that they were supposed to stink this year. No matter what happens during the rest of the series, the Cubs will leave Milwaukee still atop the division.

"I figured us and Chicago would be the top two in trying to battle it out," Brewers right fielder Corey Hart said. "I don't think anybody expected the Cardinals to be where they are. They're going to be there until the end too, so it's going to be a three-legged race."

This is going to be fun. Not just because the division is better than predicted, but because the Cubs still have nine games left against the Cardinals and eight against the Brewers, including a season-ending, three-game series back here at Miller Park Sept. 26-28. They also have road trips to Atlanta, Florida and New York. So lots of possibilities.

Yost was hoping for a possible division tie by now. He had the human XXL, CC Sabathia, going Monday night at home, and then Sheets ("Their ace," said Piniella) pitching Tuesday evening. It was set up perfectly.

But the Cubs outlasted Sabathia (124 pitches), took advantage of a screwed-up double-play attempt and went to bed with their lead stretched, sort of, to two games. Then they left bruise marks on Sheets.

"I think they outplayed us in every facet of the game," said Sheets, now 10-4. "And it started on the mound."

What does it mean? Not much. It's ridiculously early to start talking about magic numbers or who's going to throw out the first pitch in the playoffs at Wrigley. And please, please, no talk yet about billy goat curses, Bartman or the end of 100-year World Series droughts. That's reserved for October -- if they get there.

"I think it's a little early," Piniella said. "I really do. End of August, early September. We still got a lot of baseball to play, regardless of what happens in this series, and regardless of who comes out on top."

He's right. This series proves exactly nothing. Check that. It proves the Cubs and the Brewers are still the favorites to reach the postseason -- one as division champion, the other as the wild-card entry. It proves the Brewers continue to have issues on defense, and that they could use some help in their bullpen. And it proves the Cubs don't necessarily have to make much more than a small-to-medium-sized deal before the trading deadline (bullpen help?).

"It's still July," Sheets said. "Nobody winning no Central pennant right now."

Or as center fielder Mike Cameron put it: "The season didn't stop just because we lost two games to the Cubs."

It isn't going to get any easier for the Brewers. At least, not in the short term. They faced Zambrano Tuesday night. They get Ryan Dempster (11-4) Wednesday evening, followed by Rich Harden (and his 1.04 ERA and 30 strikeouts in three starts) Thursday night. A three-game Cubs lead could expand to five. Or not.

That's the beauty of this rivalry, of this division, and of this playoff race. The only thing for sure is that nothing is for sure.

"You have to keep it in perspective," the Cubs' Mark DeRosa said.

July isn't August. August isn't September. That's the lesson to be learned here. But as dress rehearsals go, this one is working out just fine.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.