Kris Bryant understands it's only May, with 127 games left in the regular season. Still, compared with the last time the Cubs faced the National League Central rival Brewers nearly five weeks ago, Bryant feels a lot better about his team's prospects.
"It's still way early in the season, but we're playing our best baseball of the whole year," Bryant said Thursday after the Cubs won for the 10th time in 11 games, a 4-1 victory over the Marlins that extended their winning streak to three. "That's always good when you're going into a series against a team that's going to give us tough games from here on out."
Since losing two of three to the Brewers on April 5-7 to fall to 2-7, the Cubs have improved in virtually all facets while winning 20 of 26. That includes the production of Bryant -- who hit his fourth home run in five games in the first inning -- and Anthony Rizzo, who provided insurance with a two-run homer in the fifth.
Rizzo's blast gave left-hander Mike Montgomery a cushion after Yu Darvish walked six and was pulled after four innings and 97 pitches.
Rizzo became the ninth player to hit 200 home runs for the Cubs, and his six homers in his last 11 games have paralleled the team's recent success.
"To have them play as good as they are is why we're winning," Montgomery said of Rizzo and Bryant.
Montgomery earned the victory with five scoreless innings in his first appearance after spending nearly five weeks on the injured list because of a left lat strain. His effectiveness allowed manager Joe Maddon to rest a bullpen that should be at full strength for the Brewers series Friday through Sunday at Wrigley Field.
"I had that thought in the back of my head to come here and give those guys a break," Montgomery said. "They've been doing very well.
"It was really good how it worked out. When (Rizzo) hit the home run, it gave me more freedom and insurance to not have to worry about a one-run lead."
The production of Bryant and Rizzo has strengthened a lineup that was more reliant on the bottom of the order during the first nine games.
"That's what this team always has been about," said Bryant, who extended his streak of reaching base safely to 19 games. "It's never been one or two guys -- it's been a collective effort. All of our success since I've been here, it's never been about one standout guy. So that's what makes this team what we are, and it's fun to be a part of."
The relievers also feel better about their contributions, especially after posting a 9.51 ERA in the first eight games. The bullpen has a 2.18 ERA since then.
Montgomery said pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told him: "This game is yours. Finish it out."
"And I really wanted to finish out," Montgomery said.
Rizzo reinforced that message during a mound visit, telling Montgomery: "Don't let a reliever come in here. You're finishing this game."
Despite the loss this week of Pedro Strop to a left hamstring strain, the relievers have given Maddon more confidence to use them where he projects them to be more successful. That includes Carl Edwards Jr., who was optioned to Triple-A Iowa during the previous Brewers series but has posted two scoreless innings since returning Monday.
That will be essential against a Brewers team that has won seven of its last 10 against the Cubs dating to Labor Day, when the Cubs had a five-game lead before the Brewers overtook them for the division title.
"I'm interested to see what it's like when they come here because last month's games were exciting," said reliever Brad Brach, a newcomer to the rivalry. "Last year is still fresh in guys' minds.
"It seems like one game makes all the difference in the world. Playing those guys should be fun. I know it's May and it's only one game, but it gives you a measuring stick at this point in the season."