Rusty Sheets can't give Brewers lead in wild-card race

MILWAUKEE -- Given the wild fluctuations of the Milwaukee Brewers' season, it's only natural that the final push for their first playoff appearance since 1982 would come down to game No. 162.

But even as they slipped back into a tie for the NL wild card with Saturday's 7-3 loss to a Chicago Cubs team resting most of its starters, the Brewers took comfort in the fact that they get to hand the ball to ace CC Sabathia on Sunday.

"It's been up and down," Sabathia said. "But we've hung in there, and now we're in a position to win a game and we'll be in a good spot."

Milwaukee must turn to Sabathia on three days' rest after the other power pitcher who was expected to give them perhaps the fiercest 1-2 starting pitching combination in baseball, Ben Sheets, was roughed up in his return from an injury.

The oft-injured Sheets (13-9) tried to put aside nagging elbow soreness to make his first start since Sept. 17, but gave up four runs in only 2 1/3 innings against a makeshift Cubs lineup.

"That's all I had," Sheets said. "I got a broke arm, I got a broke arm. It's not really broke, but it's all I had for the year. Things definitely don't look like they're on my side."

Beyond Sheets' struggles, Milwaukee's lineup couldn't manage much of anything against Ted Lilly (17-9), who held the Brewers hitless until Ryan Braun led off the seventh with a double.

Now the Brewers go into the final game of the season tied with the New York Mets for the wild card.

"And then there was one," interim manager Dale Sveum said.

Sabathia was expected to face Carlos Zambrano on Sunday, but Cubs manager Lou Piniella called an audible and now will start right-hander Angel Guzman. After resting several regulars Saturday, Piniella said he would play his normal lineup Sunday.

The Cubs beat Sabathia at Wrigley Field on Sept. 16.

"The young guy can pitch, there's no question about it," Piniella said. "At the same time, we've had some nice swings on him. He's a top-notch pitcher."

Milwaukee entered Saturday with a one-game lead on the Mets and a chance to clinch its first playoff appearance since 1982 with a win and a Mets loss. But Johan Santana pitched New York past Florida 2-0, guaranteeing that the wild-card race would go down to the final day of the regular season.

If the Brewers and Mets remain even after Sunday, they would play a one-game tiebreaker Monday in New York.

The Brewers led the wild-card race by 5 1/2 games coming into September, lost it with a prolonged skid, then reclaimed it this week with a five-game winning streak. Now they're tied with one game to go.

"It's obviously been a roller-coaster ride," Sveum said. "But the fact of the matter is, when we started, if somebody said, 'You're tied after game 161, would you take that in spring training?' Thirty teams would have done that."

The Brewers nearly pulled off a comeback Saturday.

Trailing 4-1 going into the eighth, Milwaukee rallied for two runs but left the bases loaded. Kosuke Fukudome then hit a two-run homer off Brewers reliever Salomon Torres in the ninth, and Mike Fontenot added an RBI single off Todd Coffey to extend the Cubs' lead to 7-3.

For Lilly, it was the second time this month that he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning at Miller Park.

The Brewers' home stadium was the scene of Zambrano's no-hitter against the Houston Astros in a Sept. 14 game that was moved to Milwaukee because of Hurricane Ike. Lilly nearly repeated Zambrano's feat the next day, taking a no-hitter into the seventh.

Sheets gave up a two-run homer with two outs in the first to Daryle Ward, who said Sheets' fastball didn't have as much "steam" on it as it usually does.

"You've got to take advantage of it when he's out there and he's not 100 percent," Ward said. "When he is, he's a tough pitcher to hit off of."

Sheets then loaded the bases with one out in the third and allowed a two-run single to Fontenot that put Chicago ahead 4-0.

Now the Brewers must rally behind Sabathia.

"It means everything for the season," Sveum said. "You approach it like it's the seventh game of the World Series. You're hanging by a thread, and you've got to win."

Game notes
Fielder's bloop single in the seventh extended his hitting streak to 17 games, tying a career high. ... Brewers INF Russell Branyan left in the eighth with lower back tightness. ... Piniella said Zambrano would throw on the side Sunday instead of starting.