MILWAUKEE -- From the jaws of defeat, the Chicago Cubs stole a victory from the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday after the Brewers almost stole it from them first. If Game 1 of the four-game weekend showdown between the two teams is any indication, we’re in for a heck of a ride as the Cubs are inching their way to another National League Central title -- thanks in part to Thursday’s 5-3, 10-inning victory.
“Just an incredible baseball game,” Cubs starter Jake Arrieta said after the Cubs stretched their lead over the second-place Brewers to 4½ games with 10 to play. “Two teams battling for a division. ... This is really an awesome time to be in an organization like this and a division like the NL Central where there are a couple teams who have playoff aspirations in mind. Just a tremendous start to the series.
“There were so many plays tonight that could have been the turning point -- it’s hard to pinpoint one.”
Arrieta went five innings in his return from a hamstring injury, throwing 71 pitches and looking as sharp as could be expected. His return could be huge considering the (negative) results teammate Jon Lester has been getting lately. If Arrieta picks up where he left off before he got hurt, he would have to be strongly considered for a Game 1 start in the postseason.
“The only unknown was getting out the box or covering first base,” Arrieta said of testing the hamstring.
He did just fine covering first on a nifty 3-6-1 double play, just one of the eye-popping moments in a game full of them. But not all went as planned. With Arrieta able to go only five innings due to pitch-count limitations, Cubs manager Joe Maddon needed perfection out of his top four relievers to claim victory at Miller Park.
But a 2-1 lead turned into a 3-2 deficit as once again walks from his relief staff came back to haunt, and Maddon was forced to turn to struggling lefty Justin Wilson, who gave up the go-ahead run in the eighth. But that’s when the fun began.
Ian Happ beat out an infield hit to lead off the Cubs' ninth, and the tying run was aboard.
“You just put your head down and go as hard as you can, and thankfully I beat him to the bag,” the rookie outfielder said. “I think that’s the fastest I’ve run in the biggest situation.”
A few batters later, Happ was on second with two out and Javier Baez was the plate. If there is one advantage the Cubs have over the Brewers, it’s experience. They said as much before and after the game. Baez has been in this situation several times, and he came through with a two-strike single up the middle to tie the game. The second baseman put away his big swing and opted to take what was given to him.
“Javy has been there before,” Maddon said. “The two strikes. Almost the same hit he had up the middle in the playoff game.”
The hit Thursday looked very much like the one he produced last fall in the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants. It led to the Cubs popping champagne after winning a playoff round, just as it might lead to more bubbly if Chicago can close out the division.
After tying the game, the Cubs still had some work to do. Closer Wade Davis was called upon in the ninth inning and eventually needed to get out of a one-out, bases-loaded jam. He struck out Domingo Santana, then got Orlando Arcia to ground one back to him.
“Watching Wade Davis pitch was awesome,” Happ said. “Watching Wade compete there. Man, that’s really impressive. He never panics. He has such an unbelievable presence on the mound.”
Davis would strike out the side in the 10th to earn the win, completing an incredible seven days during which he's pitched in five games -- with two outings of more than three outs. The right-hander has been amazing.
“I actually felt better when I went out for the second inning so that’s a good sign,” Davis said. “I feel great. I’ve always gotten a little bit stronger as the season’s gone on.”
Davis wasn’t afraid to throw a breaking pitch on a 3-2 count with the bases loaded and the winning run at third. That says everything you need to know about his makeup.
“That was a lot to lay on him today,” Maddon said. “To lose that game with him still in the bullpen would have been wrong on my part.”
Maddon pulled out all the stops, using several double switches to get his relievers into the right spots in the batting order. At least he had his top arms available, whereas the Brewers were short a couple because of recent workloads. The Cubs took advantage, with Baez coming through in the ninth against Jeremy Jeffress instead of regular closer Corey Knebel, before Kris Bryant hit the go-ahead, two-run homer off Oliver Drake, who has a 4.62 ERA.
“Part of it was their ‘A’ bullpen was unavailable,” Maddon admitted.
To lose the game without Milwaukee pitching its top guys while the Cubs had theirs on the mound could have been devastating. But talent, experience and poise took over, leading to a heart-stopping victory that could have nailed down the division. The final two innings that turned things in the Cubs' favor began with a rookie running his heart out. It represented what the Cubs were on this night.
“Respect 90,” Maddon said, repeating the mantra about running hard for the 90 feet between bases. “That’s what it’s all about.”