MILWAUKEE -- “We’ve got to win the seven-game series,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said last weekend, when his team was set to play seven games against the Cubs in the span of 10 days. If the Brewers were going to gain ground on the team they’re chasing for the National League’s second Wild Card berth, this would be their last chance to do it head to head.
That’s just what they did.
An 8-5 win over Jon Lester and the Cubs on Sunday, powered by a go-ahead, three-run homer from pinch-hitting September callup Tyler Austin, ensured the Brewers took three out of four games in this series at Miller Park after taking two of three last weekend at Wrigley Field. The latest victory lifted Milwaukee to within two games of Chicago in the race for the final postseason spot in the National League.
Now, the Brewers have to keep winning and hope for help amid a crowded field of contenders. The Cubs are still in playoff position at 76-66. The D-backs lost on a walk-off at Cincinnati on Sunday and remained 1 1/2 games back at 75-68. The Brewers are 74-68, a half-game behind the D-backs.
“That’s what we had to do at a minimum, was to win the series. And we did it,” Counsell said. “It gives us a big week of baseball ahead of us, and they earned that. We just went through a really tough stretch in our schedule and played really good teams. You earn those wins when you beat teams like that.
“Now we’re going on the road, and it’s still tough. It’s very tough on the road. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’ve put ourselves in a pretty good position.”
The Brewers’ road trip starts with four games in Miami, where they will play the first few days without shortstop Orlando Arcia. He left Sunday’s game in the fourth inning and rushed to the hospital to be with fiancee Elena for the birth of the couple’s first children, twin girls. Then it’s on to St. Louis to play the first-place Cardinals, who won yet again Sunday to open a 4 1/2-game lead over the second-place Cubs. The Brewers are 6 1/2 back in the division.
Here’s how the teams vying for the second Wild Card finish the season:
Cubs: At San Diego, vs. Pirates, vs. Reds, vs. Cardinals, at Pittsburgh, at St. Louis.
D-backs: At Mets, vs. Reds, vs. Marlins, at Padres, vs. Cardinals, vs. Padres.
Brewers: At Miami, at St. Louis, vs. Padres, vs. Pirates, at Cincinnati, at Colorado.
Phillies: vs. Braves, vs. Red Sox, at Braves, at Indians, at Nationals, vs. Marlins.
"Other teams have played better than us," Lester said. "The Cardinals, I think I saw something the other day, they've had the best record since the All-Star break. So, they've flat-out played better than us. These guys [the Brewers] seem to play us extremely difficult. Now, you've got the Diamondbacks making a run. Obviously, the Phillies are right there.
"That's the exciting part about having two Wild Card spots. Now, you've got four or five teams involved as opposed to just one. We've got to buckle down and play better."
The Brewers won the series Sunday with a five-run fourth inning against Lester that turned a 3-1 deficit into a 6-3 lead. Ryan Braun and Hernán Pérez delivered run-scoring hits before the big blow off the bench from Austin, the first baseman who signed a Minor League deal with Milwaukee in early August after being released by the Giants. Austin’s tiebreaking, three-run homer was his ninth in the Majors this season, but his first in a Brewers uniform.
“This is my [eighth] day, and to have something like that happen is pretty special,” said Austin.
He logged at-bats this year with the Giants and Twins before the Brewers promoted him on Sept. 1. Austin hit four pinch-hit homers during his stint in San Francisco this season.
“If you’re going to have a good season, a special season, you have to have unexpected guys step up,” Counsell said. “Today was a day we [had] great contributions from some guys who haven’t been here all year. That’s what has to happen. We’ve got enough injuries where we know that’s going to have to happen right now.”
Austin was not the only such contributor. Tyrone Taylor singled home a run in the sixth inning for his first Major League hit. Cory Spangenberg tripled and scored twice. Brent Suter, who spent the first five months of the season in the Minors rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, breezed through two quick innings in relief of Adrian Houser and won for the first time since June 21, 2018 vs. the Cardinals.
“We’re connected, like Counsell always talks about,” Suter said. “We play for each other, not just with each other. We sacrifice for each other. You can see it coming to fruition, for sure, especially with the new guys coming in and contributing right away and buying into the team concept right away.”