CHICAGO -- On Labor Day it looked like Wild Card or bust for the Brewers as the Cubs closed on another division crown with a five-game lead over Milwaukee.
Nine days later, the National League Central looks very much up for grabs.
That October feel came early to Wrigley Field, where the Brewers kept their division hopes alive Wednesday night with a 5-1 win over the Cubs and moved within one game of first place with 15 games to go and the teams trending in different directions. The Brewers have won seven consecutive series and 16 of their last 22 games. The Cubs have lost six of nine.
"We won two out of three and put ourselves in a spot where the division is within reach," said manager Craig Counsell. "You feel like now, really, you take care of your own stuff. You play well and you feel like you've got a chance to be there."
Curtis Granderson homered and scored the first three Brewers runs as Milwaukee continued its run of series victories. Their stretch of seven in a row includes a pair of 2-1 series wins over the weary Cubs, who are two games better in the loss column but are in the midst of a brutal schedule that continues with a makeup game Thursday night in Washington on what was supposed to be an off-day.
The Brewers, who navigated long grinds of their own going into and coming out of the All-Star break, know the feeling. But with off-days aplenty in September, including one coming Thursday, Counsell was able to employ all of his A-list relievers against the Cubs after Chase Anderson endured some loud contact over four scoreless innings and the Brewers took an early 2-0 lead.
Five relievers followed, including Corey Knebel with a fastball flirting with 99 mph for five critical outs in the fifth and sixth innings as the lead shrunk to 2-1, Josh Hader protecting that advantage with with three more strikeouts in the eighth against the heart of Chicago's order, and Jeremy Jeffress clearing the ninth inning after the Brewers gave him some breathing room with a three-run rally.
"I think the big thing right now is we're firing on all cylinders as a team," Anderson said. "When we need a big hit, we get a big hit. When we need to preserve a lead, we preserve a lead. If the starters give us a chance to win, get to the bullpen and let those guys handle the rest."
Until Granderson's solo home run sparked a ninth-inning surge punctuated by Mike Moustakas' two-run single, it wasn't a banner day for the Brewers' offense against Kyle Hendricks and & Co. Despite three more hits from Lorenzo Cain to cap a series in which he went 8-for-14, and three hits from Granderson, Cubs pitchers held the Brewers 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position and stranded nine men on base -- including runners at third in the first, sixth, seventh and eighth innings.
"We talk a lot about if you create a lot of opportunities you'll cash in on them," Counsell said. "Tonight was a night we just kind of kept putting pressure on them and creating opportunities. Then in the ninth we finally cashed in."
It was the biggest game of the year, unless you asked someone in the Brewers clubhouse, where, "Every game is important at this time of year" might as well be the club motto. Never mind that this game meant the difference between one game back of the Cubs or three games back with 15 to go.
"Are they giving out awards after this game?" Granderson asked with a smile before heading out for batting practice. "If they were, then it might be bigger. But last I checked, they're not."
He added, "It's 162 games. You have to let it all unfold."
Counsell echoed that sentiment.
"It's a 162-game season and [the Cubs] have earned every bit of our respect," he said. "They're the ones who have ended up on top. We've still got a little work to do. We haven't got there yet."
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Granderson grew up just south of Chicago (but was a Braves fan) and has played 18 career games at Wrigley Field, but he had not homered here since taking Mark Prior deep in 2006. That remained the case in the first inning on Wednesday, but only by an inch, after Granderson's leadoff fly ball bounced off the rim of the netting atop the outfield wall and bounced back into play for what a crew-chief review confirmed was a triple.
"We couldn't even throw the ball up there and try to have it do that," Granderson said.
In the ninth, he cleared that wall against Cubs reliever Steve Cishek, giving the Brewers the run they had been unable to score in the three previous innings.
"Those were some big, big moments in the game," Counsell said. "We put him in the leadoff spot, we put him there the other day in Washington, and he's been locked in, man. He's not playing every day but his at-bats have been very high quality and tonight we saw him drive a couple baseballs." More >
Wednesday marked Hader's 26th relief appearance with at least three strikeouts, most in the Major Leagues and good for a tie with the Phillies' Dick Selma (1970) and the Astros' Brad Lidge (2006) for fourth-most all-time, according to Baseball-Reference.
Hader has a chance to catch Dick Radatz of the '62 Red Sox (27 such relief appearances) and Mark Eichhorn of the '86 Blue Jays (28), but it appears highly unlikely he'll get to the record set by Radatz in '64, when the right-hander struck out at least three batters in relief in 36 games.
"This was a series where his talents and what he's capable of were on display," Counsell said. "It's fun to watch In the biggest moments of games, just go after the other dudes. That's what he was doing. It was good that he took it up a notch."
When Hader emerged from the Brewers' bullpen in the eighth inning, it was a moment in itself. Two days earlier, he faced six Cubs batters and struck out all of them on 24 pitches, and despite that relative efficiency, it was unclear as Wednesday's game unfolded whether he would be available. He once again navigated the toughest segment of the Cubs' order, striking out Kristopher Bryant and Anthony Rizzo before Benjamin Zobrist lined a two-strike single. Hader responded by striking out NL MVP candidate Javier Baez.
All three swinging strikeouts came on fastballs: 97.7 mph to Bryant, 97.5 mph to Rizzo and 97.9 mph to Baez.
"Once I threw [Wednesday afternoon], I felt good," Hader said. "Counsell and I have been communicating well to make sure that we're in a good position. Obviously, it's late in the year so we want to make sure that we can attack guys."
• Kevin Hart throws first pitch at '273 mph'
HE SAID IT
"We got them early but they're a different team than they were earlier. They've really changed a lot of what they're doing out there. Their yin and yang, their left and right, is pretty good. Give them credit for that. They've gotten better since the first time we saw them." -- Cubs manager Joe Maddon on the Brewers, who won seven of the final 10 regular-season matchups between the teams after losing eight of the first nine
Milwaukee's penultimate homestand brings the Pirates and Reds to Miller Park for a pair of three-game sets, beginning with Giovany Gonzalez's second Brewers start on Friday at 7:10 p.m. CT. Gonzalez, acquired from the Nationals on Aug. 31, was effective in his debut, a winning 5 2/3-inning performance against the Giants last week. He'll pitch opposite Pittsburgh's Chris Archer.