MILWAUKEE – Seth McClung was trying not to cry. Tears pooled in his eyes. This was a losing battle. After years in Tampa Bay purgatory, he was in a playoff chase with the Milwaukee Brewers, and he had just pitched the game of his life, and the emotion, the weight, everything – well, it had been a while.
"I had a pretty big Little League game one time," McClung said after throwing four shutout innings in relief and picking up the win in the Brewers' 5-1 victory against the Chicago Cubs that pushed them back into the National League wild-card lead. "I think some spring training games down in Tampa were huge. By far this is the biggest game I've ever pitched in, and for a lot of us I think it's the biggest game we've played in. We're having a lot of fun right now.
"It's good to be the Brewers."
One week ago, it was not good to be the Brewers. Actually, it was embarrassing, horrifying, emasculating and, in every manner imaginable, bad. They were doing it again. Last year, Milwaukee melted down like butter in a hot pan, fetid smell and all. And this season, the Brewers had blown a wild-card lead, watched their manager get fired with 13 games left and found themselves 2½ games behind New York for the final playoff spot.
Thanks to the Mets apparently rediscovering their choker within, Milwaukee now stands a pair of victories – or simply a win and a New York loss on Saturday – away from vindication. With five straight wins and co-ace Ben Sheets starting for the first time since leaving a game with elbow pain, it seems imminently possible, enough that the Mets bumped up Johan Santana to pitch on short rest and salvage their season.
Even the richest pitcher in baseball might not be enough.
"I don't even want to think about where we were a week, 10 days ago," McClung said. "That's like being in detention, and we got out for recess."
The Brewers did run and slide and huzzah, a three-run home run by Rickie Weeks giving McClung the cushion to stay aggressive with his 95-mph fastball against the NL's best team. Along with the other Brewers devotees in the stadium, they cheered like kids when the final from the Mets game flashed on the scoreboard and confirmed a loss.
Whatever breathed life into the Brewers, they aren't arguing. The firing of Ned Yost by owner Mark Attanasio, delivered with the swiftness of a guillotine, was supposed to provoke a sense of urgency.
That, the Brewers contend, didn't happen.
"It's the same. I'm serious," Weeks said. "Everybody has been going about their business, doing their thing, laughing, joking before the game."
So how, then? How did a team that carried itself with all the life of a cadaver morph into a paragon of energy and excitement, lift itself from the morass and play like there was something at stake?
Well, Prince Fielder's walk-off home run in the second game of the streak, against Pittsburgh, didn't hurt. Nor did Ryan Braun's walk-off grand slam two days later. And interim manager Dale Sveum pinpointed the bullpen's exceptional work: 21 2/3 innings, three runs surrendered over the last five games.
"It's not easy," Weeks said. "We could've folded."
The Brewers looked like origami last week. They dropped Sveum's first game to the Cubs, who handed CC Sabathia his first loss as a Brewer. They surrendered a four-run lead in the ninth inning to Chicago and lost in the 12th to close that series. They fell twice more against Cincinnati. With seven games remaining, a 2½-game deficit was daunting, the upheaval surrounding Milwaukee even more so.
It's been 26 years since the Brewers qualified for the postseason. A 27th, particularly with the July deal for Sabathia, would be odious.
So Sveum encouraged the Brewers to enjoy themselves, a dubious charge amid chaos. They tried. Sveum told McClung to approach the game with a football mentality, and with fist pumps punctuating each of his six strikeouts, it was evident he listened.
With the Mets playing early Saturday, the Brewers could start their game with a chance to clinch, which would free them from starting Sabathia on Sunday for the third consecutive game on three days' rest.
"It would be nice," said Sabathia, who never had pitched on short rest before.
And it would set up Sabathia to pitch Game 1 of the NL Division Series against Philadelphia, his brutal postseason with Cleveland last year potentially whited out by a command performance this year. All the Brewers, in fact, are eager for that chance, emboldened by what they've found inside themselves the last week.
Even McClung, a 27-year-old right-hander who was an outcast even in the slipshod past of the Devil Rays, felt a jolt of energy. In the ninth inning, when McClung walked Ryan Theriot with two outs, Sveum walked to the mound for a chat. He asked McClung how he felt. McClung said he was fine. And as Sveum was walking away, McClung muttered, perhaps under his breath, "You go back in the dugout, I'll do my job."
"I don't know if he heard me," McClung said.
Probably not. Though Sveum may well have ignored it and kept walking, aware of how good it is to be a Brewer and not caring to change that in any way.