Cubs

Four games back after walk-off, Brewers still believe they can catch the Cubs

MILWAUKEE — It was as though 20,000-plus people had suddenly lost their best friend. That’s how silent a pro-Cubs crowd went during the ninth inning Monday. As the Brewers mounted the rally that would result in a 4-3 walk-off victory, all the fans in Santo, Sandberg, Rizzo and Bryant jerseys seemed to figure it out at once:

The Cubs were about to lose a game they’d come from behind in just an inning earlier on a monstrous Anthony Rizzo home run. And the National League Central race that might’ve seemed like a foregone conclusion on the way up I-94 Monday morning could be uncomfortably crowded at the front by Wednesday.

Seriously, what if the Brewers sweep this three-game series? Can’t it happen? Of course it can — and it would leave them only two games off the division lead. They’ve already won the last three games here against the Cubs, and four of the last five overall, to rewrite the narrative created by the Cubs’ 8-1 start in the season series.

“That was the beginning of the season,” shortstop Orlando Arcia said. “Now things are going our way.”

Milwaukee's Christian Yelich begins the celebration. (AP/Aaron Gash)

As Rizzo’s shot off wicked lefty reliever Josh Hader soared beyond the bullpen in right for a 3-2 lead, the Cubs seemed pointed toward the inevitable. Watching that ball fly and watching Rizzo’s smile as he rounded the bases and the fired-up reaction in the dugout, it was easy to think: It’s the Cubs’ division; the Brewers are just living in it.

So it was a little jarring when Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich beat third baseman’s Kris Bryant’s throw to first in the ninth, allowing the winning run to score and setting off the sort of mob-scene celebration a team doesn’t bother with this time of year unless it sees itself as being in a fight it can win.

Yelich threw his arms to his sides in a “safe” gesture as he crossed the bag, then held them like airplane wings as he glided across the infield dirt, behind second base and all the way into left field. Arcia tugged at Yelich’s jersey. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain — like Yelich, a first-year Brewer and an All-Star — skipped in the grass like a happy fool.

A wild-card berth? Look, it’s not like the Brewers would turn one down. But they’re still aiming higher than that.

“If we win the division, it would be a big step for us,” first baseman Jesus Aguilar said. “Nobody believes in us. It’s going to be a good show. We’ve still got a chance.”

Overshadowed by the more famous (and possibly just plain better) Cubs, the Brewers nevertheless are loaded with talent. How else to describe a team that had five players at the All-Star Game this season? All five of them — Yelich, Cain, Aguilar, Hader and reliever Jeremy Jeffress — played Monday, which added up to a heck of a lot for the Cubs to contend with.

No one has meant more to this upstart team than Yelich, who is Milwaukee’s answer to Cubs fans’ “MVP!” chants about Javy Baez. Veteran third baseman Mike Moustakas, acquired just ahead of the end-of-July non-waiver trade deadline, calls the 26-year-old Yelich one of the best players he has ever seen.

Brewers fans — yeah, there were a few of them at Miller Park — gave their own “MVP!” chants after Yelich’s game-winning RBI.

“Those are certainly two guys that belong in it,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of Baez, Yelich and the MVP race. “What I think is really cool is that both guys, they’re playing multiple positions. That really says something about — defensively — what they bring to the table.”

As soon as Counsell saw Bryant move to step on third to try to start a double play, rather than throw home for a bases-loaded forceout, he knew the game was over. And what a finish it was.

“For some reason, the games that we’re playing here against the Cubs, it doesn’t matter how it starts out — it’s going to finish something like that,” Counsell said. “It’s been pretty consistent. You better make sure you have a ticket for it.”

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There is, as they say, a lot of baseball left. There are five more Cubs-Brewers meetings alone.

“You get a chance to control your own destiny,” said newly acquired outfielder Curtis Granderson, who walked against Carl Edwards Jr. leading off the eighth and scored the tying run. “This is exactly where we want to be.”

Is it really? Four games back? A lot of folks who’ve watched the Cubs flex their excellence the last four years must doubt that.

Worth noting: The Brewers have 10 walk-off victories, tied with the Cardinals for the most in all of baseball. The Cubs have lost in walk-off fashion 10 times, the most in the NL.

If the Brewers run down the Cubs and pass them to win the race in 2018, it would be quite the spectacle — like 10, or maybe 100, walk-offs in one.

No, it’s not likely to happen. Then again, that’s why they call it a collapse. It’s sudden and it’s shocking, and many a September one is etched into baseball lore.