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A pursuit of a third consecutive playoff berth is proving tougher than anticipated for the Chicago Cubs.
Sweating out September is a far better fate than the one befalling the New York Mets, another team that began the season with hopes of reaching the postseason for a third consecutive time.
Two recent National League Championship Series rivals headed in opposite directions will meet Tuesday night, when the Cubs host the Mets in the opener of a three-game series at Wrigley Field.
Left-hander Jose Quintana (9-11, 4.32 ERA between the Cubs and Chicago White Sox) is scheduled to oppose rookie Mets right-hander Robert Gsellman (6-6, 5.44 ERA).
Both teams were off Monday after home losses Sunday.
The Cubs fell to the Milwaukee Brewers, 3-1, to cap a three-game series in which they were swept by a combined score of 20-3. The Mets missed a chance to complete a four-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds with a 10-5 loss.
With the three straight losses to the Brewers, the NL Central-leading Cubs (77-66) lead the division by just two games over the St. Louis Cardinals and 2 1/2 games over Milwaukee. Another trip to the playoff is no sure thing for Chicago, which has a worse record than the team in the second NL wild-card position, the Colorado Rockies.
The Cubs weren't expected to be in such a nail-biting position at this point in September, especially after winning 103 games last season before earning the franchise's first World Series crown in 108 years with a euphoric seven-game win over the Cleveland Indians.
Even so, perpetually upbeat manager Joe Maddon is finding a reason to relish the Cubs' task instead of dreading it.
"I think you enjoy the pennant race," Maddon said. "Enjoy this whole thing. We're in a position once again to go back to the playoffs. That's something you never want to take for granted."
Nobody has to remind Mets manager Terry Collins.
New York (63-80) swept the Cubs in the NLCS on the way to the World Series in 2015 and reached the NL wild-card game last season.
However, the Mets, besieged by injuries and underperformance, have been playing out the string for months and have been under .500 since mid-May.
Collins said Sunday he hasn't thought about visiting Wrigley Field with nothing at stake less than two years after the Mets clinched a trip to the World Series at the venerable ballpark. Only 10 players on New York's active roster were on the team in 2015.
"That's why it's not going to remind me of much," Collins said with a laugh. "I'll look down the bench, there'll be a whole new cast of characters."
Quintana didn't factor into the decision in his most recent start last Wednesday, when he allowed six hits over six scoreless innings in the Cubs' 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Gsellman was credited with his first career complete game last Wednesday after surrendering three runs (two earned) over six innings in a 6-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies that was shortened by rain.
Quintana took a hard-luck defeat in his lone start against the Mets on May 30, 2016, when he gave up one run over seven innings in the White Sox's 1-0 loss. Gsellman has never faced the Cubs.