Sabathia, Braun help Brewers clinch wild card, first playoff berth since '82

MILWAUKEE -- Thanks to CC Sabathia and Ryan Braun, it suddenly didn't matter that the Milwaukee Brewers spent much of the past month squandering a shot at their first playoff appearance since 1982.

Sabathia delivered a dominant four-hit complete game in his third straight start on three days' rest, and Braun hit a tiebreaking homer in the eighth inning to lead the Brewers over the Chicago Cubs 3-1 Sunday.

Milwaukee won the NL wild card less than a half-hour later when the New York Mets lost to Florida 4-2 -- ending 26 years of frustration for the often-overlooked franchise.

"It's our time," Sabathia said.

Sabathia, who came to the Brewers in a trade with Cleveland in July, celebrated by climbing on top of the Brewers' dugout and dousing fans with champagne.

Milwaukee will face Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs. The NL Central champion Cubs will play the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was a last-minute recovery for the Brewers, who took drastic measures after blowing the 5½-game wild card lead they held going into September: They fired manager Ned Yost with only two weeks left to go.

But the details of the Brewers' wild ride to the playoffs don't matter now.

"As good as we feel right now, everything that's happened this month, everything that's happened this week is in the past now," J.J. Hardy said. "We're in the playoffs, and I don't think we could be happier."

Neither could thousands of their fans, who stayed in Miller Park to watch the Mets' game on the giant video board in center field and cheered wildly as the Marlins recorded the final out.

Streamers and confetti fell from the rafters and fireworks went off in the outfield as interim manager Dale Sveum and the Brewers began showering each other with champagne in the middle of the clubhouse.

Several Cubs, including Carlos Zambrano and Daryle Ward, sat in the Cubs dugout and watched the last few outs in the Mets game and the crowd's reaction. Cubs manager Lou Piniella avoided the on-field mayhem, but called to congratulate Sveum afterward.

"They took a tough loss in Chicago, Cincinnati beat them a couple in a row, but they bounced back," Piniella said.

Thanks in large part to their larger-than-life pitcher.

"Three starts, three days' rest, 115 pitches, he goes right through the top of the Cubs' order," Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio said. "That's CC Sabathia."

If Sabathia was feeling any pressure Sunday morning, he certainly wasn't showing it.

Sprawled out on a couch in the clubhouse, Sabathia boisterously debated college football with teammate Rickie Weeks and flipped through channels on a big-screen television, eventually settling on "America's Funniest Pets."

Sabathia (11-2) pitched his NL-leading seventh complete game in just his 17th start for Milwaukee. The only run he allowed was unearned after an error by first baseman Prince Fielder, and he finished with a 1.65 ERA for the Brewers.

"Now we just go out and have fun and see what happens," Sabathia said.

Sabathia struck out seven, walked one and threw 122 pitches. He got Derrek Lee to ground into a double play to end it.

"It was his game," Sveum said. "It was his year. It was his two months. It was his game to give his as long as he could possibly go. He was fine. He's just a special human being."

Sabathia didn't seem to think pitching three times in nine days was much of a big deal. His teammates didn't see it that way.

"He's the best pitcher in baseball," Braun said. "The best pitcher on the planet. He's our MVP this year. No chance for us to do this without him."

The Brewers couldn't get much of anything going offensively against Piniella's by-committee approach to pitching the final game of the regular season -- until Braun's towering two-run homer off Bob Howry (7-5) broke a 1-all tie.

"I thought I got enough for it to be a home run," Braun said. "I wasn't sure. Once I saw [outfielder Alfonso] Soriano's number, I thought I was in pretty good shape."

Conventional wisdom figured that the Brewers got a break by facing Angel Guzman instead of Zambrano on Sunday. But Guzman mowed through the first two innings, and the rest of the Cubs' bullpen combined to keep the pressure on the Brewers.

Piniella used four pitchers in the first six innings, who combined to retire 18 straight Brewers batters after Mike Cameron's first-inning single.

Sabathia nearly homered himself with the Brewers trailing 1-0 in the sixth, sending a long fly ball just foul down the right field line. Milwaukee came back to tie the game in the seventh, but left the bases loaded.

Sabathia made a stunning play in the field to end the top half of the eighth inning, barehanding a ground ball from Koyie Hill and throwing to first for the out.

Sabathia was allowed to hit for himself to lead off the eighth, and struck out looking. Cameron followed with a single. After the crowd cheered as Florida's 4-2 lead over New York was posted on the scoreboard, Braun came to the plate with two out and hit the first pitch he saw from Howry into the left-field grandstands, triumphantly holding his fist in the air as he rounded the bases.

Amid the celebration afterward, Sveum said he hadn't forgotten about Yost.

"I give all the credit to Ned," Sveum said. "He's one of my good friends. Just some unfortunate incidents. I love Ned from the bottom of my heart and I wish he was here right now."

Game notes
It was Sabathia's 26th career complete game and 10th of the season. ... Zambrano didn't start Sunday as the Cubs originally had planned, but did make an appearance as a pinch-hitter for Guzman to lead off the third. Zambrano, one of the best-hitting pitchers in the league, struck out swinging against Sabathia. ... The Brewers won 90 games or more for the sixth time in franchise history.