The Milwaukee Brewers, 2 1/2 games back in the National League Central with seven games to play, closed with seven consecutive victories to pull even with the Chicago Cubs on Sunday. Milwaukee beat the Cubs 3-1 in Monday's Game 163 to win its fourth division title since 1969.
A potent offense features three 30-home run sluggers in Christian Yelich, the NL most-valuable-player favorite who fell one home run and one run batted in short of a triple crown, Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw, and 20-home run men in Mike Moustakas and Ryan Braun.
But Milwaukee's true strength is a deep and dominant bullpen that ranked second in the NL in earned-run average (3.49), strikeouts (703) and opponents' batting average (.230), and features left-hander Josh Hader and right-handers Joakim Soria, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress, all with 12 saves or more.
The Colorado Rockies outlasted the Cubs in Tuesday night's wild-card game, a 4-hour 55-minute, 2-1 victory in 13 innings that required ace Kyle Freeland to throw 6 2/3 scoreless innings. That will limit the 25-year-old left-hander to one NLDS start, in Game 3.
A dangerous lineup is led by Nolan Arenado, who hit .297 with a .935 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, an NL-leading 38 home runs and 110 RBIs; Trevor Story, who hit .291 with a .941 OPS, 37 home runs, 42 doubles and 108 RBIs; and leadoff man Charlie Blackmon, who hit .291 with 29 home runs and an NL-leading 119 runs.
The Rockies have one of the best defensive infields, with the five-time Gold Glove winner Arenado at third base, two-time Gold Glove winner DJ LeMahieu at second and Story at shortstop, and veteran closer Wade Davis solidifying a vastly improved bullpen.
Why Brewers should win
With no clear-cut favorite in the NL field, the hottest team could win the pennant. The Brewers, six games back Aug. 28, have won eight consecutive games and are 33-19 in one-run games.
While the Rockies traveled from Denver to Los Angeles to Chicago to play three games in three time zones in three days and played deep into Tuesday night, the Brewers rested for two days, especially important for Hader, who threw two innings Monday.
Milwaukee doesn't have a true ace, but all the Brewers have to do is get an early lead and turn the game over to their formidable bullpen, a formula that worked pretty well for a 2002 Angels team with a so-so rotation and great relief corps.
How Rockies can win
The wild-card route puts Colorado, which is 51-28 since July 2, at a disadvantage. The Rockies are starting 23-year-old right-hander Antonio Senzatela, who was 6-6 with a 4.38 ERA, and 28-year-old left-hander Tyler Anderson, who was 7-9 with a 4.55 ERA, in the first two games.
But if Colorado can win one game in Miller Park, it will have its two best pitchers _ Freeland, who was 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA, and hard-throwing right-hander German Marquez, who was 14-11 with a 3.77 ERA and 230 strikeouts _ for Games 3 and 4 in Coors Field. That could swing the series toward the Rockies.
There is also something about winning a knockout game in the hostile confines of Wrigley Field and having your best relievers _ Davis, Adam Ottavino, Seunghwan Oh, Chris Rusin and Scott Oberg _ notch huge outs that builds confidence this time of year.
Who's coming in hot
Yelich hit .370 (34 for 92) with a 1.313 OPS, 10 home runs, 34 RBIs, seven stolen bases and 24 walks in his final 27 games. Yelich, 26, led the NL in batting (.326) and OPS (1.000), and finished second in home runs (36) and RBIs (110).
Hader, with his flowing locks and a vicious fastball-slider mix, was 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA, striking out 143 and walking 30 in 81 1/3 innings. Left-handed batters hit .090 (eight for 89) with 49 strikeouts against him.
Veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez, acquired from Washington on Aug. 31, was 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA in his five starts for the Brewers, including five scoreless innings in Sunday's 11-0 win over the Detroit Tigers.
Rockies outfielder David Dahl hit .287 with a .985 OPS, nine home runs and 27 RBIs in 24 September games, with six of the home runs coming in the final week. Story had seven home runs and 18 RBIs in the seven games against the Brewers.
Arenado closed the season with a nine-game hitting streak in which he batted .361 (13 for 36) with four home runs and four doubles, and drove in the Rockies' first run Tuesday night. Reserve outfielder Gerardo Parra hit .393 (11 for 28) as a pinch-hitter, the third-highest mark in the league.
Who's coming in cold
Brewers leadoff man Lorenzo Cain, who hit .356 with a .942 OPS in August, hit .256 (11 for 43) with a .592 OPS and eight strikeouts in his last 12 games and has not homered since Aug. 30.
Shaw, who has been sharing second base with Jonathan Schoop, hit .241 with an .825 OPS, 32 home runs and 86 RBIs. His average slipped to .203 (13 for 64) in September, though he had a .388 on-base percentage, five home runs and 10 RBIs in the final month.
Ottavino, the Colorado setup man, was dominant in 50 games through Aug. 3, with a 1.35 ERA, 78 strikeouts and 21 walks in 54 1/3 innings. In 25 games since Aug. 5, the right-hander had a 4.81 ERA, 34 strikeouts, 15 walks and three blown save opportunities in 24 1/3 innings. He also gave up the tying single to Javier Baez in the eighth inning Tuesday night.
Rockies veteran right fielder Carlos Gonzalez hit .276 with a .796 OPS, 16 home runs and 64 RBIs but sagged in September, when he hit .200 with a .597 OPS, one home run and eight RBIs in 20 games.
The Brewers won five of seven games, including three of four in Coors Field on May 10-13. Milwaukee rallied from an early six-run deficit, with Manny Pina hitting a two-out, two-run, score-tying home run against Davis in the ninth inning and Shaw a two-out run-scoring single in the 10th for an 11-10 win May 11. Freeland threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings in Colorado's 4-0 win May 12.
The Brewers won two of three in Miller Park on Aug. 3-5. The Rockies salvaged the series with a 5-4, 11-inning win Aug. 5 in which Arenado hit a game-winning two-run home run against Knebel in the 11th inning.
Prediction: Brewers in five games.