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CHICAGO – In the midst of a euphoric eighth inning, the Milwaukee Brewers fans who waded into enemy territory felt emboldened. The taut Game 163 that would decide the National League Central champion was tilting in favor of the Brewers. The NL MVP favorite, Christian Yelich, was about to step into the batter’s box. Out broke a chant, muted at first, then louder, then unmistakable: “Let’s go, Brew-ers!”
They said it again and again, and try as the majority at Wrigley Field might, they couldn’t drown out the exhilaration. The Brewers were on their way to clinching home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs, and the Cubs were headed to Tuesday’s win-or-go-home wild-card game, all because Milwaukee’s bullpen lived up to its billing and Chicago’s down to its.
The Brewers’ blitz to the NL Central title culminated in Monday’s 3-1 victory against the Cubs in front of 38,450, most of whom sat stone-faced as Milwaukee’s parade of power arms dispatched Chicago’s hitters while Milwaukee teed off on the Cubs’ mediocre relief corps. The teams entered the decisive eighth tied at 1, whereupon Cubs manager Joe Maddon ran out reliever after reliever, looking for some semblance of stability and finding none.
It didn’t help that Justin Wilson, so stellar down the stretch, allowed a leadoff single to Orlando Arcia and pinch-hit double to Domingo Santana. Steve Cishek came on looking for a strikeout and instead nearly wore a line shot into center field from Lorenzo Cain that snapped the tie. Left-hander Randy Rosario managed to retire Yelich – who was 3 for 4 and the offensive star alongside Arcia, who had a career-high four hits – but then came Brandon Kintzler, who allowed a run-scoring single to Ryan Braun.
With the lead at two runs, the Brewers turned to uber-reliever Josh Hader, who retired the first five batters he faced. The sixth, Javier Báez, worked a nine-pitch at-bat and singled to center, bringing up Anthony Rizzo as the tying run. Hader induced a fly out, the perfect cap for Milwaukee’s stellar 10 bullpen outs. Hader had followed a dominant inning by Corey Knebel, which followed a clutch strikeout of Báez by Joakim Soria with two on and two out in the sixth.
As if September never ended, the Cubs’ offense was flaccid all afternoon. They mustered just three hits, one of which was a Rizzo home run that knotted the game in the fifth. The Cubs got a wobbly-but-solid performance from starter José Quintana, nearly matching that of Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacín, who went 5 2/3 innings.
Ultimately, it was a game that came down to the bullpens, and because of theirs, the Brewers aren’t just NL Central champions. They may well be the favorite in the National League period.
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