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Cubs, Dexter Fowler struggle at Milwaukee but step closer to playoffs

MILWAUKEE -- The Chicago Cubs' magic number to win their division has finally reached single digits, though it was through no fault of their own. The St. Louis Cardinals lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates at about the same time the Cubs were dropping a rare post-All-Star-break series with a 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday night.

So the magic number is now nine, which easily takes the sting away from being shut down by Matt Garza and four Brewers' relievers.

"He was hitting his spots," lead-off man Dexter Fowler said of Garza after the game. "He was hittable. We just didn't hit."

Fowler is going through an annual mini-slump as September is traditionally his worst month. He's a career .255 hitter with a .338 on-base percentage in September -- the latter figure is the lowest for him in any month while the former is second lowest. Through a handful games this September he's hitting just .120.

While Fowler's importance to the offense can't be overstated there isn't much concern. Not with October still weeks away and that magic number diving even without the team firing on all cylinders these past couple of days.

"With him it's very difficult to tell because he looks the same pretty much all the time," manager Joe Maddon said of Fowler's slump. "And he doesn't get down on himself. He will get it right at the right time. I totally believe that because he doesn't carry the previous day into the next one."

Fowler is hitless in his past 18 at-bats, which includes six strikeouts. It's hardly time to worry though. He certainly didn't look the part at his locker stall after the loss.

"You get into them, you get out of them," Fowler said smiling. "You get three hits and no one cares anymore."

Despite the defeat, the game provided a moment of levity as reliever Justin Grimm had to leave in the sixth inning after facing one batter. He wasn't feeling well when he arrived at Miller Park earlier but thought he could pitch through it. Maddon had a different idea.

"What happened?" Maddon said repeating the question put to him. "I did not want him to soil himself on the mound."

The Cubs can laugh at such a statement because they are just days away from clinching a second consecutive trip to the postseason. And after the game Grimm said he was fine so that story had a happy ending as well. Perhaps there was one other thing of note on Wednesday -- besides Anthony Rizzo hitting another home run and then missing a second one by inches. Reliever Joe Smith gave up the game-winning long ball to Jonathan Villar in the eighth inning, making it four home runs given up by Smith in just 10 appearances since being acquired in deadline day trade. Even Smith's performance was waved off by Maddon.

"Listen, he gave up a home run. So what?" Maddon said. "He was really good again."

A postseason home run might not elicit the same reaction. We're not there yet, though. All it takes is one good week at the end of the regular season and a player -- especially a reliever -- can work his way back into the good graces of his manager. In all, it wasn't the most exciting night for the visitors but it got them a step closer to their season-long goal. Plus, the Brewers aren't a bad team as rebuilding ones go.

"I'll take all of that," Maddon said of the magic number being reduced by one. "And we played well. I keep saying about Milwaukee they have really good arms. And they continue to get it together on the field. They're doing some nice work."