Cubs sitting in the driver's seat

CHICAGO -- The beauty of Wrigley Field's 70-year-old scoreboard is in its simplicity. Army green background. White lettering. A touch of yellow. A clock. And those flags. At Wrigley, the flags always tell the story of a season.

Early Tuesday evening, when the sweltering late August air felt like something from the working end of a hair dryer, those flags were flapping hard toward Lake Michigan. A hitter's night.

But more important was the order of those flags on the center pole of the ancient scoreboard. American flag. Space. Then Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates. These are your National League Central standings.

For the moment.

If anybody knows what's going to happen in this psychotic division, please inform Cubs manager Lou Piniella. It was his 64th birthday (and my mom's 83rd) Tuesday night, so somebody owes him a present.

The Cubs did their part, giving him a 5-3 victory to unwrap in front of 40,884 fans. A four-spot in the bottom of the seventh inning was the difference, made partly possible by a Brewers gift: a fielding error (or so the official scorer said) by reliever Scott Linebrink on a high chopper by Ryan Theriot that bumped the Cubs ahead.

This won't help Milwaukee manager Ned Yost's disposition. Yost is as tight as one of the violin strings played by the guy who performed "The Star-Spangled Banner," before the start of this crucial three-game series. Watching his team blow a 3-1 lead in the seventh to lose its fifth in a row, and its 11th in 14 games, isn't exactly the safety chute Yost was hoping for.

"It's kind of how the way things have gone for us," Yost said. "One bad inning."

When the Brewers arrive at Wrigley for Wednesday night's game, they'll see a different flag order. The Cubs remain in first, but now the Cardinals occupy second, just two games out, followed by the Brewers, who drop 2½ games behind the NL Central leader (their biggest deficit of the season). Still, the three teams are as close as the ivy that hugs Wrigley's brick outfield walls.

Someone has to win this division, though it's hard to figure out who.

The Cubs, nine games under .500 and 7½ games out in early June, have worked their way back from dugout fistfights and oblivion to first place. An e-mailer insists it has to do with the Cubs' run differential. No, it has to do with mediocrity differential. The NL Central is so ordinary that even the Reds, 12 games under .500, aren't out of this race yet.

The Cubs ought to win this thing. They have the best starting pitching, and 23 of their remaining 32 games are against teams with losing records. Plus, they have left fielder Alfonso Soriano back in the lineup after a three-week absence.

Then there are the Brewers. The strange, impossible-to-figure-out Brewers. They once had the best record in the majors, were 14 games over .500 twice, and led the division by as many as 8½ games on June 23. Since then -- and there's no nice way of saying it -- they've reeked.

There's no need to go through all the ugly details. It's like a Lance Briggs car wreck, except the Chicago Bears' linebacker walked away from his mess in one piece. The Brewers are stuck here, having to live with the self-inflicted damage of a 9-22 record since July 25.

"We weren't thinking about [the losing]," Brewers shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "We were just going out there playing and winning ballgames. When it started getting closer and closer, I think we started thinking about it more. And we were looking back … and seeing where [the Cubs] were, seeing if they're winning.

"We talked about it like, 'Just go out there and worry about what we're doing, and we don't have to worry about them.' But I feel like we were still looking at the scoreboard."

They're still looking. How can you not look? It's right up there in green and white.

St. Louis 7, Houston 0.

Pittsburgh 6, Cincinnati 4.

Pittsburgh 3, Cincinnati 2.

Chicago 5, Milwaukee 3.

"This isn't like the hugest series of the year for us," Yost said, sitting in the dinky, white cinderblock office of the visitors clubhouse before the game. "Every series is big. It's going to come down to a good month. A good month for us. A good month for St. Louis. A good month for Chicago, whatever. It's basically you've got a month to go finish things. Every series, every game is big."

Sounds like an MLB promo, but he's right. Sort of.

This series matters a little bit more because the Brewers and Cubs don't face each other after Thursday night's game. It matters enough that Cubs fans booed longtime Brewers announcer Bob Uecker as he led the crowd in singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. Then they did something I've never seen from a Wrigley crowd: They sang it again, as if Uecker's version was infected. Even Uecker had to be impressed by the passion.

Everything's easy when you have no chance. When you're close, it's tough.

--Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder

Ace Ben Sheets returns to the Brewers' starting rotation Wednesday, his first game since spraining a finger July 15. Sheets has as many wins on the DL as Jeff Suppan has had in his last 12 starts: zero. But against the Cubs Tuesday night, with that wind blowing out, Suppan earned some of that four-year, $42 million, free-agent deal he signed during the offseason.

Suppan pitched well enough to win, but he didn't. The Brewers' bullpen gave away the lead, and that was that. Incredibly, Milwaukee doesn't have a victory by one of its top three starters (Sheets, Suppan, Chris Capuano) since June 30.

"Now -- this is the hard part," Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder said. "It's going to be hard to play when you're close. It's easy when you're way out. Everything's easy when you have no chance. When you're close, it's tough."

The Brewers, with the NL's worst pitching since the All-Star break, have a chance. The power-challenged Cubs (only 104 home runs) have a chance. The defending champion Cardinals, with a suspect starting rotation and no off days between now and the end of the regular season, have a chance.

"You just keep playing," Yost said. "Just play. That's all we can do."

As Cubs fans sang "Go, Cubs, Go" after the final out, Fielder sat in the deserted Brewers dugout. He stared at the floor, at his cleats, and, for a moment, seemed to glance at that old scoreboard. What a depressing sight it must have been.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.