The Milwaukee Brewers needed 163 games to do it, but they finally overtook the Chicago Cubs for good, winning the National League Central title with a 3-1 victory over their rival in a tiebreaking game on Monday.
With the win, the Brewers advanced to a league divisional series, while the Cubs, who had held at least a share of the division lead since mid-July, will be asked to play for their postseason life as the N.L.’s top wild-card team.
Monday’s tiebreaker at Wrigley Field, which the Brewers forced with a 19-7 record in September, seemed like it would come down to a battle between the N.L.’s leading candidates for the Most Valuable Player Award, Christian Yelich of the Brewers and Javier Baez of the Cubs. Instead, it was run-scoring singles by Lorenzo Cain and Ryan Braun in the 8th inning that decided the game in the Brewers’ favor.
Given a lead with six outs to play, Milwaukee turned to its ace reliever, Josh Hader, who slammed the door shut with two shutout innings.
That Yelich did not deliver the go-ahead runs qualified as somewhat surprising after he thoroughly dominated baseball over the final month of the season. The slugging 26-year-old outfielder, who came to the Brewers in an off-season trade with the Miami Marlins, very nearly won the N.L.’s first triple-crown since 1937 thanks to an outrageous second-half in which he batted .367 with 25 home runs and 67 R.B.I. in just 65 games.
A 3-for-4 performance against Chicago — which included a run-scoring single in the 3rd inning — left him as the N.L.’s leader in batting average (.326), on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.000) and wins above replacement (7.4 entering Monday’s game). He fell one home run and one R.B.I. short of joining Joe Medwick, Chuck Klein, Rogers Hornsby and Heinie Zimmerman as modern era winners of the N.L. triple-crown.
“The guy’s been unbelievable,” Cain said in an on-field interview after the game. “I get a chance to see it day in and day out and the guy’s been impressive all season long.”
He added an endorsement for his teammate’s award chances, saying “I don’t see any other guy that’s gonna top this guy for M.V.P.”
The Cubs, who had seemingly wrapped up the division when their lead over Milwaukee reached five games on Sept. 1, simply could not muster an offense to compete on Monday. Anthony Rizzo’s solo homer was Chicago’s only extra-base hit and just six Cubs batters reached base all game against Jhoulys Chacin and four relievers, including Corey Knebel, who extended his scoreless streak to 16⅓ innings, and Hader, who has been absolutely dominant down the stretch and figures to be the team’s go-to reliever in the postseason.
While avoiding the wild-card game, and securing home-field advantage in the N.L. playoffs, was huge for Milwaukee, they might not want to put the Cubs too far in the rearview mirror. Should Chicago survive in Tuesday’s wild-card game at Wrigley Field, the Cubs and Brewers will be lock horns once again, this time to decide a division series.