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Cubs, Brewers bring NL playoff race to its knees

MVP Christian Yelich’s broken kneecap, Kris Bryant’s two-homer return from knee injury alter the look of the National League playoff picture.

Chicago Cubs v San Diego Padres
Kris Bryant (left) congratulates Jason Heyward after a second-inning homer. Bryant added a pair of two-run homers in the fifth and eighth, and Heyward added a tying shot in the eighth.
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

SAN DIEGO – Not long after the news broke Tuesday night that Brewers star Christian Yelich is out for the season with a broken kneecap, Kris Bryant hit a pair of two-run homers for the Cubs in his return from his own knee injury.

Which knee has a bigger impact on either team remains to be seen over the final 20 days of the season.

What’s certain is that the National League playoff picture took on a much different look Tuesday night — as the Brewers closed to one-game back of the Cubs for the last wild-card berth on the night they lost their star.

Yelich, the reigning NL MVP, was having an even better season this year – including a 6-for-8, five-walk surge against the Cubs in three consecutive Brewer victories over the weekend.

On this night in San Diego, the Cubs got just three innings from starting pitcher Jose Quintana and, eventually, a four-pitch, bases-loaded walk by reliever Steve Cishek to end a 9-8 loss to the Padres in 10 innings.

Manuel Margot drew the one-out walk as the Cubs’ lead for the second wild card dwindled to one over the Brewers and 1 12 games over the Phillies.

“This is not the ideal situation,” Bryant said. “But how many years are you just going to go through it [in a] cakewalk and just be all rosy and smiles on faces and everybody’s happy? I don’t think that’s how life goes in general.

“What I can tell you is that everybody here is very motivated and ready to go and … being where we are in the standings is not where we wanted to be. But I think we’re all very ready and hopefully we’ll make these last [weeks of] games really count.”

Kimbrel won’t return Thursday

Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel (elbow inflammation) threw lightly on the side again Tuesday but appears several days away from a full-intensity bullpen session, assuring he won’t be ready to return from the injured list on his first eligible day Thursday.

“It’s responding well,” said Kimbrel after throwing Tuesday.

No clarity on Russell

Shortstop Addison Russell remained in baseball’s concussion protocol two days after being hit in the head by a pitch Sunday in Milwaukee.

The Padres team doctor examined Russell both Monday and Tuesday, and his status is subject to daily evaluation until he is symptom-free.

“From the reports we have on him, he’s getting better and better every day,” said Russell’s agent, Scott Boras.

Don’t put Hoerner in (SS) corner

Meanwhile, Russell’s replacement, Nico Hoerner remains the everyday shortstop until Russell’s return – and then will get the chance to earn playing time at second base and in the outfield even after Russell returns.

“That’s something we talked about before he even got here,” Maddon said. “We’ll try to make our best call on a nightly basis.”

Hoerner, the 2018 first-round draft pick who has played mostly shortstop as an amateur and professional, played a full season in college at second, and he spent a lot of time this season learning to play outfield, in particular centerfield.

“I’m going to be more comfortable in some places than others but I also feel confident anywhere on the field,” he said.

Binge hitting

When Jason Heyward homered in Tuesday night’s second inning, he became the sixth Cub with 20 home runs this season, tying the 2017 franchise record. The five others: Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez, Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras.

Those five and Ian Happ did it in 2017.

It’s only the fifth time in franchise history the Cubs have had five 20-homer players (also 2008, 2004, 1958).