MILWAUKEE -- Brewers All-Star closer Corey Knebel and setup man Anthony Swarzak were unavailable Thursday after pitching the previous three nights in Pittsburgh. Lefty weapon Josh Hader, as valuable to the Brewers' future as he is to the moment, was deemed off-limits, as well. It turns out that "all hands on deck" has its limits.
Those limits forced Milwaukee to employ other relievers in a 10-inning, 5-3 loss to the Cubs at Miller Park, a second straight defeat in the opponent's final at-bat and a sour opener to a huge four-game series between the top two teams in the National League Central. Milwaukee trails their first-place neighbors to the south by 4 1/2 games, although they didn't lose any ground in the race for the second NL Wild Card spot thanks to a loss by the Rockies, whom the Brewers trail by one game.
Starter Zach Davies did his part with seven quality innings and Jacob Barnes escaped a jam in the eighth, but Jeremy Jeffress was one strike away from his first save in more than a year when Javier Baez golfed a game-tying single in the ninth inning. Oliver Drake then surrendered Kristopher Bryant's winning home run in the 10th inning. The Brewers' bullpen allowed three runs on five hits and four walks in three innings.
"We got to where we wanted to be," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, "but a ground ball got through."
There was more for Jeffress and the Brewers to lament than just Baez's well-placed grounder. Eric Thames had just given the Brewers a 3-2 lead with an RBI single in the eighth inning before Jeffress found immediate trouble in the ninth. He was slow covering first base on Ian Happ's infield hit, a call that stood after Counsell challenged. Jeffress said he initially thought the second baseman would handle Happ's ground ball. When Jeffress realized first baseman Neil Walker would take it, he was too late to reach the base in time.
That extended the ninth long enough for Baez to bat with Happ at second base and two outs. Jeffress threw four straight fastballs below the strike zone, and Baez grounded the fourth past the Brewers' shifted shortstop and into center field for a 3-3 tie.
"I had a lot of conviction in that pitch," Jeffress said. "I was trying to go lower than low. I felt like that was the right pitch at the right time. What are you going to do? I've had a lot of balls sneak through like that."
"JJ did a great job. He did exactly what he was supposed to do," Counsell said. "He made great pitches. He threw a ball on his last pitch, it looked like it was just off the ground and [Baez] just rolled the ball up the middle. Nothing wrong with the pitch. We just didn't have a fielder there, unfortunately."
Without Hader, and with the Brewers' other left-hander, Wei-Chung Wang, still gaining trust in a postseason race, Counsell turned to the right-handed Drake for a 10th inning that featured left-handed-hitting Jonathan Jay and Anthony Rizzo sandwiched around Bryant. Drake has reverse splits thanks to a split-fingered fastball that makes him effective against left-handed hitters.
But Jay led off the 10th with a double off center fielder Keon Broxton's glove and Bryant followed by hitting the game-winning home run.
"We've done that so many times -- I guess it is experience," Bryant said of the Cubs' comeback. "Our heartbeats aren't going too fast when the game is on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage."
The Brewers have three more chances to regain some advantage. They expect to have their late-inning bullpen corps available when the series continues Friday.
"We're going to look at some things and put this one behind us and keep moving on," Jeffress said.