MILWAUKEE -- This was not the postseason, but it sure felt that way Thursday night at Miller Park as the Cubs and the Brewers traded late-inning blows in Milwaukee's most charged September ballgame in years.
Javier Baez hit a tying two-out RBI single in the ninth, Wade Davis escaped a bases-loaded jam to force extra innings and Kris Bryant's two-run home run in the 10th sent Chicago to a 5-3 win in the opener of a four-game series that could decide the National League Central.
"That was a pretty special game," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
The Cubs extended their lead to 4 1/2 games over the second-place Brewers with a week and a half to go, and the Cardinals looming just a half-game behind Milwaukee. If the Cubs, winners of eight of their last nine games, keep winning, they could clinch a second straight division title as soon as Sunday with their magic number now at six.
"It was just an incredible baseball game," Cubs starter Jake Arrieta said. "I'm sure it felt to you like a playoff game like it did to us. Two teams battling for the division, four-game series -- this is a really awesome time to be in an organization like this and in a division like the NL Central where there's a couple teams that have playoff aspirations in mind. If we take care of business here, we can get a couple steps closer. This is a tremendous start to the series."
The Brewers also missed another chance to gain ground on the Rockies in the race for the second NL Wild Card spot. Milwaukee remained one game behind Colorado after both teams lost Thursday.
It marked Milwaukee's second loss in as many nights in an opponents' last at-bat.
"It's two tough games but we're still sitting in a pretty good spot," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "We can play well for the last nine days and still do something good. Every loss is going to be incredibly tough right now."
The Brewers were 3-for-9 with runners in scoring position, including Eric Sogard's tying RBI single in the seventh inning and Eric Thames' go-ahead RBI single in the eighth, but they needed more. Baez's single off fill-in Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress tied the game with the Cubs down to their final strike before Chicago beat another right-hander, Oliver Drake, on Bryant's 28th home run in the 10th.
"That's a tough one. The past two nights, we got kicked in our teeth," said Drake. "But we've still got baseball left. We've got three more left against the Cubs, and they're going to be big ones."
Maddon said they knew the Brewers' "A" bullpen pitchers were unavailable.
Playing in the postseason the last two years also helped the Cubs.
"We've done that so many times -- I guess it is experience," Bryant said of the late comeback. "Our heartbeats aren't going too fast when the game is on the line there. It kind of plays to our advantage.
"This is really showing us what we're made of. It was nice -- their fans were loud, our fans were loud. It's always nice to play here. We get a nice draw from Chicago. Keep 'em coming."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Santana's steal: Brewers right fielder Domingo Santana finished with two hits, including a home run off Arrieta, two runs scored and one pivotal stolen base that helped the Brewers take a lead in the eighth. He doubled off Cubs reliever Justin Wilson, then stole third thanks to a 38.6-foot secondary lead from second base, according to Statcast™, about 10 feet further than the average on successful steals of third. That prompted the Cubs to play their infield in, which allowed Thames to line a single over leaping second baseman Baez for the Brewers' first lead of the night.
Speed kills: Even with expanded rosters, the Brewers entered the day in a bullpen bind after using setup man Anthony Swarzak and All-Star closer Corey Knebel each of the previous three nights in Pittsburgh. With that backdrop, starter Zach Davies delivered seven quality innings and Jacob Barnes escaped a jam in the eighth, leaving the ninth for Jeffress, who inherited a 3-2 lead but found immediate trouble when he was slow covering first base on Ian Happ's infield hit. The call stood upon review after the Brewers challenged, extending the inning long enough for Baez to golf a sinker below the strike zone for his game-tying hit.
"I had a lot of conviction in that pitch," Jeffress said. "I was trying to go lower than low. I felt like that was the right pitch at the right time. What are you going to do? I've had a lot of balls sneak through like that."
Leaving 'em loaded: The Brewers twice left the bases loaded in the late innings with the game tied, first in the seventh when Ryan Braun scorched an inning-ending groundout -- 105 mph off the bat, according to Statcast™ -- and again in the ninth against Davis. Braun was clipped on the elbow by a pitch and Travis Shaw singled to load the bags with one out for Santana, who struck out. Orlando Arcia then grounded back to the mound to end the threat and send the game into extra innings.
"We had a chance in the ninth, certainly, where the strikeout hurt," Counsell said. "[Santana] had an at-bat where he chased out of the zone a couple of times and the strikeout hurt you. You don't put it in play, you put the pressure on the next guy."
Davis has been busy, now pitching in five of their last six games.
"I've thrown some pitches better than I have in the past month or so and getting good results," Davis said.
"That was a lot to lay on him today," Maddon said. "When you come from behind like that and you have a chance to win that game -- to lose that game with him out there playing catch in the bullpen would've been wrong."
"You get used to it up here. I want to believe with the [close race] with Milwaukee, [the fans] will show up in good numbers. I think we just like loud. Even Dodger Stadium, it's just loud. I think we're a little bit of adrenaline junkies and we're used to 40,000 people a night. We just like loud." -- Maddon, on the large contingent of Cubs fans at Miller Park
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
Between challenges from both dugouts plus two crew-chief reviews, five different plays received a second look at Major League Baseball's replay center on Thursday, including Happ's game-changing dash to first base in the ninth inning and Anthony Rizzo's slide home in the 10th that resulted in a Cubs run coming off the board. More >
WHAT'S NEXT Cubs:John Lackey will make his first start since he was ejected for arguing balls and strikes last Friday vs. the Cardinals. He went 4 2/3 innings in that outing. In three starts against the Brewers this season, Lackey is 1-2 with a 3.79 ERA. The only win was at Miller Park on July 30. First pitch on Friday at Miller Park will be at 6:35 p.m. CT.
Brewers: Rookie right-hander Brandon Woodruff has already gone toe-to-toe with Bartolo Colon and Max Scherzer; now he will draw another veteran opponent in Lackey when the series continues. Woodruff has held opponents to a .237 batting average in his first six big league starts. This is his first career start against the Cubs.