MILWAUKEE – If the Cubs and Brewers keep this up all weekend, neither one might be left standing to throw a punch by the time the playoffs start.

Back-to-back extra-inning games at Miller Park that taxed the bullpens and exhausted the emotions of every player involved also produced victories for the Cubs that have put them on the brink of another division title.

“It’s awesome. It’s definitely a playoff atmosphere,” said Tommy La Stella, whose bases-loaded walk as a pinch hitter in the 10th pushed across the game winner in the 5-4 victory over the Brewers on Friday night.

“These are incredibly important games from both sides,” he said, “so obviously emotions are high, and the stakes are high, and everybody’s locked in so it’s a good time.”

The Brewers’ third final-inning loss in a row dropped them to third place, behind the Cardinals, who beat the Pirates on Friday night.

With nine games left, the Cubs’ magic number for clinching a second consecutive division title over the Cardinals is five — putting them in position to clinch a championship in St. Louis for the first time since 1938. They open a four-game series at Busch Stadium on Monday.

“These are postseason-type games even though it’s not the end of the season for one of the teams at the end of the series,” said cleanup hitter Ben Zobrist, who gave the Cubs a brief lead in the top of the fifth with a two-run single. “They’re still very, extremely meaningful games that will matter. Everybody knows that.”

The Brewers – now 5½ games behind the Cubs – remain close in the race for the National League’s second wild-card spot. The loss put them 1½ games behind the Rockies, pending the outcome of the Rockies’ late game at San Diego.

It was just two weeks ago that the Brewers swept the Cubs at Wrigley to launch the closest division race the Cubs have had in a decade.

The Cubs have gone 9-1 since, with two left to play in Milwaukee before a four-game series at St. Louis starting Monday.

“Yeah, that definitely killed us, that sweep at Wrigley,” crabby starter John Lackey said sarcastically after getting pulled from the game in the fifth.

The Cubs came from behind in both victories at Miller Park, including a ninth-inning comeback Thursday.

“They get hit a little bit, maybe a little something in the solar plexus, but we still keep going,” manager Joe Maddon said.

These games have become so big that big-game starter Lackey was gone as soon as he gave up a leadoff single to Eric Sogard in the fifth with the Cubs clinging to a 4-3 lead.

“He obviously wasn’t trending well,” Maddon said. “Johnny just didn’t have his best stuff tonight.”

Lackey, who gave up a run quickly in the first and back-to-back homers in the second, disagreed and said he believed he was trending better into the fifth – at one point cutting off a question about the early hook when the columnist mentioned the veteran’s desire to pitch more than four innings.

“Ya think?” said Lackey, who then passed on the larger question. “The biggest thing is we won the game.”

Lackey took over the major-league lead in homers allowed at 36.

Brian Duensing took over for Lackey and got a quick double play, but then gave up back-to-back doubles to Ryan Braun and Travis Shaw for the 4-4 score that held through nine.

The intensity of the series might have been summed up in a single at-bat by Jon Jay leading off the Cubs’ fifth.

Jay fouled off 10 consecutive pitches during that 15-pitch at-bat before hitting a single to right. Kris Bryant was then hit by a pitch, and after the runners moved up on Anthony Rizzo’s grounder, both scored on Zobrist’s hit.

 

In the 10th, Bryant led off with a walk against Brewers All-Star closer Corey Knebel, and Rizzo singled to right to send Bryant to third before Zobrist was intentionally walked to load the bases.

After Leonys Martin struck out, La Stella – batting for Albert Almora Jr. – drew the RBI walk on a 3-1 pitch before Knebel wriggled out of the jam without further damage.

With Cubs closer Wade Davis unavailable because of his recent workload, Carl Edwards Jr. got the final five outs of the game to earn the win.

The Cubs caught a break in the bottom of the 10th when, with one out, Sogard slid past second base on a steal and was tagged out – confirmed after a video review.

“We’ve done that so many times. I guess that’s experience,” Bryant said after the Cubs opened the series with Thursday’s 10-inning victory on the strength of his home run. “We’ve played so many games like this our heartbeats aren’t going too fast when the game’s on the line. That kind of plays to our advantage.”

Especially in a race that has been much tighter than last year’s boat race to the playoffs.

“It’s just a different year than last year,” Bryant said. “Now it’s like we’ve got to win these games, and it’s really showing us what we’re made of.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

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