The Milwaukee Brewers traveled to Wrigley Field on Monday and will head back home as both the top seed in the National League postseason and the NL Central champions following their 3-1 win over the Chicago Cubs.
MVP candidate Christian Yelich and veterans Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun led the way, each registering RBI singles in the victory, while five Brewers pitchers combined to give up just three hits and one run.
Anthony Rizzo's fifth-inning homer was the lone run for Chicago.
The Brewers will next play Thursday and await the winner of Tuesday's NL Wild Card Game. That matchup will be between the Cubs and the loser of Monday evening's NL West-deciding game between the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Brewers in Driver's Seat After Securing Home-Field Advantage in NL Playoffs
The Brewers have had a magical September, erasing a five-game deficit earlier in the month to emerge as NL Central champions. But more importantly, their path grew easier Monday as they secured home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
Lose, and the Brewers would have been facing the dreaded play-in game Tuesday. Had they won that, they'd have a series against the Cubs without home-field advantage.
Instead, they get two days off and will host either the Cubs, Dodgers or Rockies at Miller Park come Thursday.
Avoiding the play-in game was crucial. A team's season can be over in the blink of an eye, lost due to a flukey bounce of the ball or at the hands of a suddenly unhittable pitcher.
But the Brewers are also red-hot. Since Sept. 1, they are 20-7, winning eight games in a row and 10 of their last 11. They have a deep bullpen and a fearsome top of the lineup, led by Yelich, who might be the best player in baseball this season.
All of this is happening ahead of schedule, as Dan O'Donnell of NewsTalk 1130 noted:
While the pieces are falling into place, none of that matters if the Brewers suddenly start playing poorly. But Milwaukee looks like it could make a World Series run this October.
Continued Heroics from Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun Will Be Crucial in Postseason
Perhaps lost amid the magic of Milwaukee's run to the postseason is the fact that the Brewers aren't brimming with postseason experience.
Players such as Yelich, Jesus Aguilar, Josh Hader, Jhoulys Chacin and Chase Anderson have never been in the playoffs. Travis Shaw has appeared in one postseason contest.
Players like Cain and Braun, however, have danced in October. Cain in particular won a World Series with the Kansas City Royals in 2015.
Both looked the part of wily veterans Monday. Cain's eighth-inning RBI single proved to be the game-winning hit. Two batters later, Braun gave the team some wiggle room with an RBI single of his own.
Obviously, the Brewers will only go as far as their top players take them. If Yelich suddenly goes ice-cold and Aguilar goes through a power drought, they'll be in trouble. But they have veterans, including Cain and even Mike Moustakas, who can not only contribute on the field but also guide the younger players behind the scenes.
And if they consistently come up as clutch, as they did Monday, the Brewers are going to be difficult to beat.
Joe Maddon's Liberal Bullpen Use Could Haunt Cubs in Play-In Game
Manager Joe Maddon was not shy about utilizing his bullpen Monday, using seven pitchers. It was clear he was going all out to avoid the play-in game, but following the loss, that strategy could come back to bite the team.
Of course, all is not lost with Jon Lester on the mound. And Chicago will have a home game against either the Dodgers or Rockies, who will be traveling from Los Angeles overnight. But it isn't the ideal path either.
Jeff Passan @JeffPassan
The Cubs will play the loser of the Dodgers-Rockies game tomorrow night at Wrigley Field. Jon Lester will start. The winner will advance to face Milwaukee. It's not the worst-case scenario, by any means, but all things considered, it's a pretty big kick in the gut for Chicago.
If Lester falters, the Cubs could turn to Cole Hamels, with Kyle Hendricks likely to start Thursday should the team advance.
No doubt, Chicago will be in desperation mode Tuesday. So maybe Maddon's gambit won't matter. If Lester deals—or if Hamels is called upon and gives his team several strong innings—nobody will remember that Maddon that used six pitchers after taking out Jose Quintana, who gave up six hits but just one run in five innings.
But if Lester, Hamels and a potentially taxed bullpen struggle and the Cubs get knocked out of the postseason...Maddon's use of the bullpen will be a talking point in Chicago all winter.