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  W: W. Davis (4-1)   L: O. Drake (3-5)
5:10 PM PT6:10 PM MT7:10 PM CT8:10 PM ET20:10 ET0:10 GMT8:10 5:10 PM MST7:10 PM EST7:40 PM VEN4:10 UAE (+1)7:10 PM CT, September 21, 2017
Miller Park, Milwaukee, Wisconsin  Attendance: 35,114

Cubs' Arrieta back for opener of showdown in Milwaukee

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

MILWAUKEE -- Jake Arrieta returns to the mound Thursday as the Chicago Cubs try to lock down the National League Central when they open a four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

The right-hander has been out since tweaking his right hamstring on Sept. 4. He missed two turns through the rotation but reported no issues after a 25-pitch bullpen session Tuesday and was cleared to return.

"He looked really good," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said afterward Arrieta's side session. "Mechanically sound. Executed his pitches and didn't feel anything.

"If it works out where he can pitch on Thursday, it would be good, so he can have three starts the rest of the year. Give him a chance to get stretched out and everything locked back in."

Arrieta (14-9, 3.48 ERA) has been a big reason for the Cubs' turnaround, posting a 1.98 ERA in the second half.

"The good thing is the arm strength is there, it's remained there," Arrieta said. "I actually feel better for maybe having a little time off arm-strength-wise."

Arrieta has faced Milwaukee twice this season, winning both of those starts while holding the Brewers to three earned runs in 13 innings.

The Brewers stayed alive in the division race with a stunning sweep of the Cubs earlier this month at Wrigley Field, cutting their deficit to two games in the process.

Since then, though, the Cubs rattled off seven straight victories before falling to the Tampa Bay Rays 8-1 on Wednesday. Milwaukee went 6-3 during that stretch, but they are 3 1/2 games of first after losing 6-4 to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night.

The Brewers also trail the Colorado Rockies by one game in the chase for the second NL wild card.

"When we get this deep (into the season), the losses hurt more and the wins feel better," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said Wednesday. "This one hurts for sure, but what we're doing tomorrow, that helps you turn the page pretty fast."

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of the Brewers, "They got us last time, and they're not going to go away. I've been a fan of theirs for the last two years. I think they've done a lot of good things. It's going to come down to us playing those games well."

Zach Davies (17-9, 3.89 ERA) gets the start for Milwaukee in the series opener, facing the Cubs for a fifth time this season. He spilt four decisions in those games, posting a 3.96 ERA, but held Chicago to a run over seven innings on Sept. 10 at Wrigley Field.

"It will be a big atmosphere there at Miller Park," Davies said. "It's going to be a fun four-game stretch against them. That sweep (at Wrigley Field) was a good thing for our team. It showed that we could go in there and sweep them at their place; now it's time for us to protect ours. It would be that much sweeter to do it again at our place, but it's going to take a lot of fight."

The Brewers' bullpen had been lights-out before the Wednesday loss but will be limited Thursday after covering 6 1/3 innings in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Swarzak likely won't be available after working in a third consecutive games. Closer Corey Knebel also pitched a third day in a row Wednesday, and he was scored on for just the fourth time since the All-Star break. He blew a save chance, then gave up a walk-off homer to Pittsburgh's Adam Frazier.

"Some other guys are going to have to step up (Thursday)," Counsell said.

The Brewers have won 12 of their past 16 games at Milwaukee, including two of three against the Marlins last weekend after Hurricane Irma forced that series to be shifted from Miami.

However, as is often the case when Chicago and Milwaukee meet, there will be a large number of Cubs fans in the stands at Miller Park all weekend, making their presence known.

Counsell thinks his team will be ready for the challenge.

"The atmosphere we're going into is good for us after a game like this," he said. "We'll be very aware of the game. I'm excited, the guys are excited about it."

Updated September 21, 2017

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