ST. LOUIS -- Thanks in no small part to a signing and a trade on the same day in January, the Brewers will play baseball into October.Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich & Co. punched their tickets to the postseason on Wednesday night with a 2-1 win over the Cardinals at Busch
ST. LOUIS -- Thanks in no small part to a signing and a trade on the same day in January, the Brewers will play baseball into October.
Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich & Co. punched their tickets to the postseason on Wednesday night with a 2-1 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, completing a three-game sweep that guaranteed at least a spot in next week's National League Wild Card Game. With St. Louis' loss, the Cubs are in, too.
For the fifth time in 50 seasons as a franchise, and the first time since 2011, the Brewers are going to the postseason.
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"It's so hard to do this," Yelich said. "Winning a Major League Baseball game is so tough, and for us to be able to do it that many times and put us in a position to be in the postseason is really special. We've got an awesome opportunity ahead of us.
"Hopefully, this is the first of many celebrations."
The Brewers hope to take another champagne shower this weekend, but they will need some help. The NL Central-leading Cubs beat the Pirates in extra innings to remain a half-game ahead of the Brewers in the division standings. Chicago has four games remaining, Milwaukee has three. With the Rockies' victory and Dodgers' loss, the Brewers are guaranteed to host the Wild Card Game if they don't win the division.
Still, with those games against the Tigers still to play, the Brewers paused Wednesday night to drench the same clubhouse in which they sulked one year ago after being eliminated from playoff contention by the Cardinals on the season's penultimate day.
When players armed with goggles as well as postseason T-shirts and caps gathered in the clubhouse, Brewers manager Craig Counsell gave that history lesson to those who hadn't lived it.
"We had a tough moment here last year, a disappointing moment. And we got to celebrate here this year," Counsell said. "It's a moment for us to blow off some steam and be proud of how this team has come together and how they've played and how they've competed and treated each other. We know we've got a big weekend ahead of us -- a huge weekend ahead of us."
Yelich walked in all five plate appearances and scored twice after tormenting the Cardinals in the first two games of the series, Travis Shaw hit a pair of RBI singles, and Jhoulys Chacin allowed only one Cardinals hit and one run in five effective innings. That left the game in the hands of a stout bullpen that locked down the Brewers' first sweep at Busch Stadium since 2009.
It nearly slipped away, until a slip saved it. More on that in a moment.
"You need some breaks," Counsell said. "If you're going to win the World Series, you need to catch a break, man. We'll take some breaks along the way, for sure."
It was clear that someone besides Yelich was going to have to beat the Cardinals, because four different pitchers walked him. That someone was Shaw, who singled sharply to right field for a 1-0 lead in the third inning, then blooped another RBI single to left in the fifth.
"'Yeli' did another thing tonight that was kind of amazing, in walking five times," Counsell said. "He does something every night that's different. He got a treatment -- I've used Barry Bonds in the last couple of days with some other writers, and his second half, that's what it's looked like to me. It's been that impressive, where guys in the clubhouse are marveling at it. Travis came up big tonight."
Added Shaw: "It was obvious they weren't going to pitch to him. They made that mistake too many times before this season. Somebody else was going to do it. I was just able to get a couple hits."
"Travis stepped up huge tonight," Yelich said. "Chacin threw a hell of a game. And then the bullpen came in. It's only fitting that they came in and shut the door, because that's what they've done all year. It was an awesome moment."
It was a moment general manager David Stearns had in mind when he shocked the baseball world by acquiring both Cain and Yelich on the same day -- Jan. 25. Cain signed the richest free-agent contract in Brewers history, five years and $80 million, and gave Milwaukee an elite defensive center fielder, a brilliant baserunner and an on-base machine at the top of the order. Yelich cost four premium prospects in a blockbuster trade with the Marlins, and essentially carried the offense after the All-Star break while rising to the top of the list of NL MVP Award contenders.
Stearns made other shrewd moves, signing Chacin for two years and $15.5 million instead of emptying the coffers for Yu Darvish or Jacob Arrieta, and making a slew of in-season trades headlined by a deal with the Royals for Mike Moustakas. Counsell managed all of those extra pieces down the stretch, including a bullpen headlined by Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress that proved the team's clear strength.
The Brewers started strong and finished strong, overcoming a period in the middle in which they lost seven straight games and nine of 11 leading into and coming out of the All-Star break, including a dismal five-game sweep in Pittsburgh that finished a stretch of 21 games in 20 days.
But Milwaukee found its footing right here in St. Louis, winning behind Chacin on Aug. 19 to begin a stretch in which the club won 24 of 34 games through Wednesday and took 10 of 11 series.
"As a team, that was the toughest stretch," said Ryan Braun, the last remaining player from Milwaukee's 2011 playoff team. "I think we've done a good job of being able to turn the page, to move on, to focus on the task at hand, the next day's game, recognizing that you can't ever go back and change those losses. We can't go back and play better or do anything differently.
"We just move forward and continue to play good -- and ultimately, it's our depth. There's a lot of guys who are contributing to our success. We have so many guys in the bullpen, all of our starters have been underappreciated, and as an offense, it's a lot of different guys that can help carry us on any given night."
There are more important nights ahead.
"If you could go back in time eight, nine months, and realize what was in front of you and what you were going to experience..." Yelich said while being showered with champagne. "It was special. We're excited to be coming home to Milwaukee."
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
"Extreme panic," is how catcher Erik Kratz described the game's decisive moment in the eighth inning. The Cardinals' best hitter, Matt Carpenter, had just worked a nine-pitch walk from Hader with two outs. St. Louis sent Adolis Garcia out to pinch-run, and the Brewers called for closer Jeffress, who'd pitched only once in the previous 12 days and was unavailable for a save situation Monday because of neck spasms.
Jose Martinez hit a chopper along the third-base line that Moustakas fielded, then bounced an off-balance throw past Shaw at first base. Garcia started sprinting around the bases, but he slipped around third while Brewers second baseman Hernan Perez -- who'd just entered the game -- fired a throw home. Kratz tagged at the air, then recovered in time to find Garcia and apply the tag the Brewers needed for the inning-ending out.
The lead was saved.
"I was there for that moment. I made a good throw to home plate, and we made the out," Perez said. "Like Counsell told me early in September, I'm going to be a part of the team. I'm going to make a big [difference] in a game. When I made that play, I remembered what he told me. I said, 'We're here.'"
Counsell said the play was made when Perez hustled after the baseball. But also credit Kratz, who did everything right to get in position, then didn't panic when the runner wasn't there to tag, even if he was feeling it on the inside.
Kratz said he heard the crowd groan and knew something had happened. He just had no idea what it was.
"It's extreme panic. Extreme panic," Kratz said. "It's not the panic that you ever want, but I knew I had the ball and I knew the guys were there if I had to throw it to third. You don't ever think he's going to fall. But we got the out."
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt was asked what he said to a despondent Garcia.
"I just pat him on the back," Shildt said. "Look, guy is making a physical error giving everything he's got. Feet go out from under him. Those things happen. All you can do is support him. He's our teammate."
HE SAID IT
"I'm happy for [the players], and I'm happy for the fans of the Brewers. From the season-ticket holders to the people in the retirement home who get three hours a night watching Brewers games. For Bob Uecker, who gets a chance to call a playoff game again. That's the thrill for me. … I should have left a space in there."
The Brewers will close out the regular season at home against an old American League rival, the Tigers, who visit Milwaukee for the first time since 2006 beginning at 7:10 p.m. CT Friday. Zach Davies starts for the Brewers opposite Auburndale, Wis., native Jordan Zimmermann, who has a 3.80 ERA in front of friends and family in four career starts at Miller Park but hasn't pitched there since 2015.
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.