MILWAUKEE -- A bigger prize awaits, but the Brewers know this: They will play in the postseason for the fourth straight year.
Manny Piña’s second home run of the night was a go-ahead blast down the left-field line in the bottom of the eighth inning, sending the Brewers toward a 6-4 win over the Cubs on Saturday that made Milwaukee the third team in MLB to clinch its spot in the postseason.
There were no champagne showers, making this clincher much different from the previous seven in franchise history. In fact, if it wasn’t plastered across the scoreboard, some of the 33,625 in the stands might not have even known. After Josh Hader struck out Willson Contreras and Patrick Wisdom for the final two outs, stranding the tying runner in scoring position, the Brewers shook hands like any other victory and retreated to the clubhouse.
That’s because the next goal -- winning the National League Central -- is tantalizingly close. The Brewers’ magic number to clinch the division is down to three, and the earliest they can wrap that up is Monday, when the second-place Cardinals come to American Family Field to open a four-game series.
“We’ve put the ability to win the division in our control, so that's our goal and we're sticking to that goal,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We know that we're in the playoffs and everybody is thrilled with that, but we feel like we've earned the right to wait until we win this division.”
Muted celebration aside, this was history. After making postseason appearances four times in their first 49 seasons as a franchise, the Brewers have now made it each of the last four years under their home-grown manager, Counsell, and president of baseball operations David Stearns.
“There are still a lot of games left that we have to keep our focus toward,” Brewers starter Corbin Burnes said. “I think there will be a little bit of celebrating tonight, but the main celebration is going to be when we clinch the division.”
Saturday’s game against the Cubs was among Milwaukee’s most entertaining contests of the year, starting with Burnes on the mound for the first time since combining with Hader on a no-hitter, logging his eighth double-digit strikeout game this season and allowing a home run for the first time in seven starts as the teams traded barbs.
Lorenzo Cain crashed into the center-field wall for a sensational catch but was injured in the process. There were four lead changes and three ties from the second inning through the eighth. Piña, Eduardo Escobar and Jace Peterson all hit go-ahead home runs -- and Piña did it twice, off Cubs starter Justin Steele in the second inning for the game’s first run, and again in the eighth off reliever Scott Effross to break a 4-4 tie.
When Pablo Reyes added insurance with an acrobatic slide into home plate later in the eighth inning and Hader logged his 33rd save in the ninth, the Brewers were October-bound.
Hitting a go-ahead home run in a postseason clincher qualified as quite a moment for Piña, the longest-tenured Brewer who came to the team as a player to be named in Stearns’ very first trade -- a December 2015 deal that sent closer Francisco Rodriguez to Detroit.
“Maybe that will be on top of my list [of moments in the Major Leagues],” Piña said. “That was great. We won today, made the playoffs one more time -- four in a row. It’s amazing, a great thing. This group is special.”
The Cubs didn’t make it easy. Ian Happ’s two-run home run gave Chicago a 3-2 lead in the fifth inning and represented the first home run off Burnes since Aug. 6. His streak of 44 innings without allowing a homer was the longest active run for a starter in baseball. After the Brewers reclaimed the lead on Peterson’s home run leading off the sixth, the Cubs answered right back with Willson Contreras’ monster shot to left-center field off Brad Boxberger in the seventh.
But the Brewers kept coming. And now they have an October berth secured.
“To their credit, they're in every game,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Their offense has been really good in the second half, and for a while now, I guess. They've got some really talented players -- guys having really good years. And it looks like they have a really fun atmosphere. They have a really good team.”
Escobar, one of Milwaukee’s midseason additions, returned that tip of the cap.
“Yesterday and today were great games, man,” Escobar said. “Especially tonight, it felt like a postseason game in the eighth and ninth. Just unbelievable. Everybody’s loud, the best closer in the league right now [Hader], a good hitter and two people on base -- I think that’s a postseason game right there. I’m so happy.
“On a good team, when you have great energy every day and you’re down early in a game, you come back again and again. It’s why we say every game is very important. Because you prepare your mentality, you prepare your energy for the postseason.”