CHICAGO – Mark Attanasio, the Milwaukee Brewers' principal owner, spent the biggest night of the season in Los Angeles at a fundraiser for Barack Obama. Attanasio is a BlackBerry fiend, so presumably he watched Tuesday night's game between the Brewers and Chicago Cubs play out on his screen, revealing a rarity for him: a losing bet.
It was no surprise that on Monday, one of the most panicked financial days since the Great Depression, Attanasio, a go-go investment banker by trade, made an all-time sky-is-falling move by firing Brewers manager Ned Yost with 12 games left in the season in spite of them owning a share of the National League wild-card lead. Attanasio is about production. Yost wasn't producing wins. Transitively, he had to go.
That left Dale Sveum, he of zero major-league managerial experience, to cut his teeth against the NL's best team, at Wrigley Field, with the teeter-totter of momentum – and perhaps the Brewers' season – at stake. Even with CC Sabathia on the mound, Milwaukee couldn't break its slump. A 5-4 loss to the Cubs put the Brewers back a half-game of the New York Mets in the wild-card race and ostensibly eliminated any chance of pulling ahead of the Cubs in the NL Central.
"The season don't end tomorrow. The season ends in 11 games," Sabathia said. "We've still got 11 left to try and get in."
That was all the Brewers could take from a night in which Sabathia dropped his first game since June 5. Never mind that Milwaukee has lost 12 of 15, been outscored 80-44 in September, blown a 5 1/2-game wild-card lead since Sept. 1 and gagged away a spot among the NL's four best teams for the first time since July 20.
"You can't really worry about that," first baseman Prince Fielder said. "We're good."
Yes. Things look rather peachy for the Brewers. They need to keep telling themselves that. Because it's obviously working.
As much as the Brewers want to maintain their we-got-it-under-control façade, that attitude got Yost fired. He had as much control as a car with a blown tire, and the Brewers were rumbling toward the retaining wall. They did the same last year, watching an 8 1/2-game lead June 23 evaporate into a second-place crash.
Firing Yost was Attanasio's overcorrection, and while one game is no indication of whether Sveum can stabilize the Brewers, it was an inauspicious beginning.
"We were in this position last year," Sveum said. "We had to fight to the last couple games of the year, and it looks like it's going to happen again."
The Cubs outclassed the Brewers from the first inning, when Alfonso Soriano led off with a double and eventually scored. Chicago earned a pair in the third and watched its starter, Ryan Dempster, cruise through the first five innings with nine strikeouts.
Fielder's first home run of the night, a 450-foot monster that nearly severed a few tree branches on Sheffield Avenue, cut the deficit to 3-2. Soriano answered with a home run.
By that time, Sveum had eased into his stance in the Brewers' dugout, a pose with plenty more responsibility than the one he previously held as Milwaukee's third-base coach. He had managed three seasons in the minor leagues. He knew pressure, holding the third-base coaching job with Boston, whose fans cheered Sveum's departure, his windmilling arm too often inaccurate.
And he would be Attanasio's gamble.
Sveum, who admitted before the game to carrying a bundle of nerves, said when the game started he told infielder Bill Hall: "Wow, I'm calm." He had brought in Hall of Famer Robin Yount to serve as his temporary bench coach and changed the batting order and dispatched pitcher Manny Parra to the bullpen. He made his stamp. This team, for 12 games at least, would be his.
So the ninth inning arrived and Sveum's first game ultimately depended on Fielder, the Brewers' leviathan. He had homered twice. Runners were on first and third base. He was facing Cubs closer Kerry Wood, who had yielded a run to make the score 5-4.
At one point, Wood threw four straight fastballs: 96 mph, then 97, then 96, then 97. He kept firing them, and Fielder kept swinging, one at his letters, another at his eyes, all foul.
"It's kind of the way you want it," Dempster said, "mano-a-mano, let's go, best I got against the best you got."
Wrigley pulsed. Maybe this wasn't the Brewers' season. It sure felt like it.
Wood stared down Fielder. The count was 3-2. He gripped a slider before catcher Geovany Soto laid down the sign for one. He tore it off, 81 mph, belt high, and buckled Fielder's back leg. He walked away before the umpire signaled strike three. Sveum returned to the clubhouse with a career record of 0-1.
"It seemed like just a couple of weeks ago," Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson said, "we had just a 4 1/2-game lead, and we were thinking things were going to be pretty hairy at the end of the season, looking at the schedule, playing the Brewers and St Louis and the Mets and then the Brewers again to finish the season. It just looked like it was going to be a stressful last two weeks of the season for us."
Instead, the Cubs are on cruise control, their lead over the Brewers now at nine games, and Milwaukee is searching for something, anything. After the game, Sabathia, Fielder, Hall, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Rickie Weeks sat on their folding chairs next to one another with the same look of emptiness. They stared at nothing. They had lost. Again.
And nothing could rescue them from that, not even the news that the stock market bounced back Tuesday, up 141.51 points. The Brewers learned a sobering lesson.
Baseball has no natural rebound.