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Playoff Pulse: Cubs benefit from foes' crises

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

MILWAUKEE – The injury had come over the last five days, when the Milwaukee Brewers frittered away what remained of their wild-card lead, then fired their manager. The insult – watching the Chicago Cubs, their hated division rivals, set up camp in the Brewers' clubhouse at Miller Park, throw a no-hitter, celebrate with a beer shower and come back the next day with a one-hitter – well, this was the kind dreamed up by only George Carlin or Chris Rock or some mighty angry baseball gods.

What the Brewers did to deserve the Cubs prancing into their Hurricane Ike-forced makeup games in Milwaukee with a still-tenuous lead in the National League Central and galloping away practically guaranteed home-field advantage in the playoffs was immaterial.

It happened, and it happened in incredible fashion.

Ted Lilly took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in the Cubs' 6-1 victory Monday, less than 24 hours after Carlos Zambrano fired nine no-hit innings against Houston. A Mark Loretta flare into right field spared the Astros the ignominy of being the first team in baseball history to get no-hit in back-to-back games. They settled for being the first to muster only one hit over a two-game span.

And yet the shame that coursed through the Astros' clubhouse could not match that of the Brewers, whose second consecutive late-season meltdown cost Ned Yost his job around the same time Lilly was finishing his fourth no-hit inning.

With the Brewers headed to Chicago on Tuesday to begin a three-game series that could decide their season, the Cubs declined to find any joy in Milwaukee's misfortune. Instead, the Cubs saw it as an opportunity to strap on a steel-toed boot and press firmly on the Brewers' windpipe, possibly absolving themselves, in the process, of facing CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets in the NL championship series.

"I want to go to Chicago, win the first three games there and celebrate," Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano said. "It's very important to celebrate at home."

With three wins, the Cubs clinch the division and, very nearly, home-field advantage in the NL. The slump of last week is a distant memory, Chicago riding a historic wave and buoyed by Zambrano and Lilly.

"Houston came in here very, very hot, playing really good baseball," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "And our pitching basically shut them down."

Now, the Cubs did admit that they were playing in perhaps the friendliest road environs in the modern era. Nearly 40,000 people attended the two games, and somewhere around 39,999, give or take one, were outfitted in Cubs garb. This was a road game in name only, no matter what Aramis Ramirez – "If they cry about it," he said, his sensitivity meter in need of new batteries, "that's the wrong thing to do" – tried to claim.

Still, Houston had plenty of time to sit back and reflect on getting no-hit before the Astros almost let it happen again. Lilly isn't Zambrano. He's the Cubs' No. 4 starter, although a handsomely paid one. He's a 92-mph-at-best left-hander with an ERA a tad better than league average.

And he stood eight outs from matching Zambrano.

"I thought about it during the sixth inning," Lilly said. "After what Z did last night, it would've been fun to do something I'm not sure has been done. You don't know if you'll ever have that opportunity again. But I'll take tonight the way it was."

Lilly made it through the seventh and gave way to the bullpen, which allowed a run because of a couple Jeff Samardzija walks. The Cubs weren't complaining. Lilly is throwing great. Zambrano had never been better, even with his recent shoulder issues. Rich Harden, also with some arm issues, looked phenomenal in his last outing. And Ryan Dempster, the most consistent Cubs pitcher of all, will face Sabathia in Tuesday's series opener.

How the Brewers will react to Yost's firing was what the Cubs wanted to know. They'll find out firsthand whether the intended effect of Yost's dismissal – urgency – is something achieved through such means. Mark DeRosa, the Cubs' superutility player, didn't quite understand the timing, what with Yost having led the Brewers this far already.

"They still have a chance to win the division and wild card, and he loses his job?" said DeRosa, who played for Yost in Atlanta's minor-league system. "I guess I don't make those decisions, and I'm glad I don't."

All DeRosa does is play, same as the rest of the Cubs, and that's edifying. Because the way they did so the last two days – the manner in which they cleared up all questions about themselves while those of their rivals only intensified – makes them think that while the baseball gods are smiting the Brewers, they're smiling on the Cubs.

Three up

Carlos Zambrano, SP, Chicago Cubs: It was my first no-hitter in person, and I can say without pause that I've never seen a better performance. Sometimes there are one-hit shutouts and eight-inning masterpieces that are more dominant than a no-hitter. Not this one. When Zambrano licked 99 with his fastball in the first inning, I sent an instant message to a co-worker that said: "Z looks awfully good." What an understatement.

Philadelphia Phillies: Apparently, they decided to take their Lithium this week. Four straight wins against Milwaukee and the Phillies are back in the thick of the NL East race and tied for the wild card. The best news: They've got the closest schedule to cake among the contenders, with six games against Atlanta, three against Florida and three closing the season at home against Washington.

Los Angeles Angels: They officially clinch the American League West that was theirs in, oh, May. Francisco Rodriguez nails down save No. 58 and twitches uncontrollably. Finishing a sweep of the Mariners with their entire regular outfield on the bench. Yeah, it was a good week for the Angels. Now it's just a matter of carrying it over into October.

Three down (plus bonus one)

Milwaukee Brewers: Though the unraveling isn't quite complete, the Brewers have come apart like a plane held together with Elmer's glue. The actual crash and burn could take place in Chicago this week, where the Brewers travel with their season in the balance – and without manager Ned Yost, who was fired Monday afternoon and replaced by Dale Sveum. Remember, teams have melted down in September only to rebound in October. The White Sox did it in 2005 and won the World Series. Same with the Cardinals in '06. So anything is possible. Just not probable.

Ryan Braun, Mike Cameron, J.J. Hardy Corey Hart and Jason Kendall, non-contributors, Milwaukee: Sorry to pile on, but this is impressive: a combined 14 for 127 this week.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Overshadowed by the Brewers' descent has been the Diamondbacks' plunge into the pool of choke. Yes, Dan Haren has been abominable, but that's no excuse. Since starting 21-9, the D'backs are 51-67. They are a flawed team, with too many strikeouts and not enough power and a bullpen that seems to relish blowing leads. Arizona is close to being an extremely dangerous team. But that's for next year.

Syracuse football: This should be the last of these interludes, because Greg Robinson is going to lose to Northeastern this Saturday, and if he's not fired by the next edition of this column, I will officially list my alma mater as ITT Tech.

Number Crunching

CC Sabathia gets the ink. "And that's fine," Roy Oswalt said. "I'm happy to keep pitching like this with no one noticing."

Oswalt has been every bit as good as Sabathia since the Aug. 1 trade deadline, and right behind him is Minnesota's Francisco Liriano, re-establishing himself as one of baseball's best pitchers, and Brett Myers, dominating since his refresher course in Triple-A.

Kyle Kendrick, Myers' Phillies teammate, tops the list of worst pitchers for contenders with 65 hits and walks allowed in 29 innings. As Ron Burgundy might say: I'm not even mad. That's amazing.

Dandy Dozen

Player Team W-L Saves ERA IP H BB K
LaTroy Hawkins HOU 2-0 1 0.00 13 5 3 19
Jose Valverde HOU 1-0 15 0.48 18 2/3 8 3 23
Joe Nathan MIN 0-1 7 0.55 16 1/3 11 5 18
Jonathan Papelbon BOS 1-1 7 1.02 17 2/3 15 0 18
Carlos Marmol CHC 0-1 2 1.17 23 8 8 29
C.C. Sabathia MIL 5-0 0 1.44 62 1/3 53 11 68
Roy Oswalt HOU 7-1 0 1.56 69 1/3 43 14 49
Francisco Liriano MIN 5-0 0 1.57 51 2/3 37 12 44
Brett Myers PHI 5-2 0 1.72 68 56 11 65
Rich Harden CHC 4-0 0 2.02 35 2/3 22 11 39
Johan Santana NYM 4-0 0 2.15 62 2/3 52 17 54
Daisuke Matsuzaka BOS 5-0 0 2.82 51 42 26 50

Dirty Dozen

Player Team W-L Saves ERA IP H BB K
Kyle Kendrick PHI 2-4 0 9.00 29 44 21 12
Aaron Heilman NYM 2-4 3 8.40 15 17 16 13
Jon Rauch ARI 0-5 1 7.41 17 21 8 17
Brandon Backe HOU 3-2 0 7.65 40 52 20 28
Aaron Cook COL 2-3 0 6.94 36 1/3 57 10 16
Sidney Ponson NYY 2-3 0 6.41 46 1/3 57 20 16
Doug Davis ARI 2-3 0 6.02 40 1/3 57 16 28
Dan Haren ARI 3-3 0 5.83 46 1/3 67 13 47
Andy Pettitte NYY 1-5 0 5.55 48 2/3 63 15 40
Joe Saunders LAA 1-2 0 5.36 45 1/3 57 11 22
Ubaldo Jimenez COL 3-3 0 5.36 43 2/3 45 26 45
Manny Parra MIL 1-4 0 5.27 41 51 17 44

Skeptical Hometown Columnist of the Week

I can't quite fathom how no opinion writer in Milwaukee has unloaded on the Brewers, so since I am here, I will call this my adopted hometown and provide due skepticism:

Congratulations to Brewers manager Ned Yost, who wins the daily double of learning from neither his own mistakes nor others' – and getting fired for it. How he could sit back and watch his team go all Chernobyl for the second straight year without lifting a finger was straight out of the Willie Randolph playbook. It takes a special kind of arrogance to believe things will turn out just fine when every indication otherwise says it won't. The Brewers, as constructed, are CC Sabathia and His Band of Merry Wanderers, directionless and nomadic and in grave need of a leader. Which Yost unequivocally had proven he wasn't.

Matchup of the Week

Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays, Thursday through Sunday

Life gets no easier for the Twins, who get to spend four days in the house of horrors known as Tropicana Field. It's the most advantageous home field in the major leagues this year, the Rays' winning 53 of 74 games there, and will be a good warm-up for the Twins, who would begin the playoffs in St. Petersburg if they scratch out the AL Central. This is one of the more captivating stretch series in years when considering the pitching matchups. Eight starters will go. The oldest is James Shields, born Dec. 20, 1981. There is one more 26-year-old, Minnesota's Nick Blackburn, three 25-year-olds (Tampa's Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine, Minnesota's Glen Perkins) and three more 24-year-olds (the Twins' Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey, the Rays' Scott Kazmir). If ever you needed evidence these teams will be contenders for a good long time, this is it.

Playoff odds report

And now the predictions get interesting.

Accuscore's supercomputer ran 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season and came up with some interesting results. The AL is set, aside from the crapshoot Central.

The NL, on the other hand, is a mess. The Cubs are locks, the Dodgers almost sure things. But the rest is quite confusing. Milwaukee is the wild-card favorite despite being less likely to make the postseason than Philadelphia and New York. That's because in more than 49 percent of the scenarios in which they qualified, the Brewers were the wild card, whereas the Phillies and Mets also have the NL East to fight over.

Last week's percentages are in parentheses.

American League
Los Angeles Angels 100 percent (100 percent)
Tampa Bay Rays 98.8 percent (97.6 percent)
Boston Red Sox* 96.5 percent (92.1 percent)
Chicago White Sox 53.6 percent (59.7 percent)
Minnesota Twins 48.0 percent (45.5 percent)

National League
Chicago Cubs 99.5 percent (97.9 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers 94.4 percent (64.1 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies 60.9 percent (34.8 percent)
New York Mets 60.8 percent (64.9 percent)
Milwaukee Brewers* 53.8 percent (93.4 percent)
Houston Astros 15.5 percent (NR)

* – Wild card leader

Final word

"They're probably drinking champagne and having in a beer shower right now in our locker room while we sulk about what happened here. It's ironic, where we're at as a team and how we feel at the end of this series and see them celebrating a no-hitter on our field. The way things are going, it doesn't surprise me. It's almost fitting." – Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after getting swept by the Phillies and watching Zambrano's no-hitter.

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