MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Crew makes NL Central race tight with sweep

Brewers move within two of Cubs for division lead

Crew makes NL Central race tight with sweep

CHICAGO -- Look out above.

As it turns out, Zach Davies and the Brewers aren't satisfied with simply making progress this season. They want to make a little history.

Like the Little Engine That Could, Davies and the Brew Crew swept Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and the first-place Cubs in a weekend series at Wrigley Field, closing from five games behind to only two back in the National League Central.

They did this at the same time that the Cardinals were sweeping the Pirates at Busch Stadium, and suddenly there we've got ourselves a highly intriguing race in the division, one that just might go down to the final weekend.

Milwaukee and St. Louis are tied for second, two games back, with three weeks left. The Brewers return home to play three games against Pittsburgh.

"Certainly St. Louis is playing very well right now,'' Brewers manager Craig Counsell said after Sunday's 3-1 victory, which was fueled by Travis Shaw's two-run homer. "It's a three-way race to me, and it has been. Teams have gone on little streaks, but haven't been able to separate themselves.''

Must C: Shaw's go-ahead homer

The Brewers have won only one division title since 1982 (in 2011), but that's no reason to write them off. They're only seven games over .500 (75-68) but they believe they can win. And why not?

The weekend before they swept the Cubs the Brewers took three of four from the Nationals, and the weekend before that they took two out of three from the Dodgers, who at the time had won 55 of their last 67 games. Davies, who beat stylistic counterpart Kyle Hendricks Sunday for his 17th victory, threw seven shutout innings that Saturday at Dodger Stadium.

It seemed innocent enough at the time but the Dodgers have won only once since then. A loss to the Rockies on Sunday was their 10th in a row and 15th in 16 games.

So did Davies break the Dodgers, as a Milwaukee scribe joked?

"I think it's a good example of [how baseball works],'' Counsell said. "We think the team that is the best team, they can struggle too. The best team can struggle. The Rockies are going in there and beating them. Credit to the Rockies for beating them. There are games on the schedule, and none of them are easy, frankly. You've got to beat the other team, play better than the other team. I think there's been a lot of [people asking], 'How is this happening across baseball?' "

Davies' dominant outing

Compared to the Indians threatening to win every game they play and the Dodgers going into a freefall, the Brewers are downright dull. They haven't won more than five in a row or lost more than six in a row.

Their high-water point was 11 games over .500 on July 15 (52-41); their nadir was three under .500, back in April (2-5).

General Manager David Stearns contemplated blockbuster moves at the non-waiver Trade Deadline but ultimately opted on the side of caution. He acquired dynamic setup man Anthony Swarzak from the White Sox and reacquired Jeremy Jeffress from the Rangers, but passed on paying the steep price for a controllable starter like Sonny Gray or Jose Quintana.

That's how much faith Stearns had in the starting pitchers he already had: Davies, Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson and Matt Garza, especially. Counsell lined up Nelson, Anderson and Davies to face the Cubs in the weekend series that Shaw called the Brewers' "last stand,'' and they wound up limiting baseball's most productive second-half offense to 12 hits and one run over a combined 17 innings.

The lone downside to the weekend was incredibly unlucky.

Nelson, who, like Davies, had made every start since Opening Day, hurt his shoulder diving back to first base in Friday's 2-0 victory. He was clearly in pain when the play happened, but stayed in the game to pitch one more inning. The Brewers thought the damage would be minimal, until a Saturday MRI showed a strained rotator cuff and a partially torn labrum, which has ended his season.

Nelson on season-ending injury

"The way he felt after the game, what the doctor said, you think he's going to be OK,'' Counsell said Sunday. "That's why we do the tests. It's unfortunate. You are a little shocked. We are definitely a little shocked. We rebounded pretty nice [in Saturday's 15-2 victory], and we'll have to cover in his absence. The guys who are going to pitch in his absence will have to cover for him.''

Garza had a 3.83 ERA at the end of July, but got knocked around some in August, and Counsell pulled him from the rotation after he gave up five runs in 2 2/3 innings in Cincinnati on Wednesday. The skipper is turning to Harvard product Brent Suter and 24-year-old right-hander Brandon Woodruff behind Davies and Anderson, and didn't have an immediate answer about who will fill in for Nelson.

Counsell feels great about his bullpen, with closer Corey Knebel a reliable anchor and newcomers Josh Hader and Swarzak major contributors. Carlos Torres, Jacob Barnes, Jared Hughes and Oliver Drake provide depth that could be critical over the next three weeks, especially in the starts by Woodruff and Suter.

While a Central title is the primary objective, the Brewers will also be watching Colorado closely. They are tied with the Cardinals for third in the Wild Card race, three games behind the Rockies.

"You're looking at both ways in for sure,'' Counsell said. "There's two tickets to the dance. You're looking at both of those.''

But you better believe Counsell knows the Brewers have four games left against the Cubs. They're in Milwaukee on Sept 21-24, and that just happens to be another weekend. Stay tuned.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.