- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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MILWAUKEE -- Their starting rotation has been reduced to initials: CC (Sabathia) and TBA (To Be Announced). Their manager was hired exactly nine games ago. Their margin of error is thinner than bratwurst casing, which means the Milwaukee Brewers' playoff future depends almost entirely on these next three days.
"And we've got to play the best team in the National League," says Brewers infielder Craig Counsell.
That would be the Chicago Cubs, who clinched the National League Central division title days ago and are fresh from their Beat The Mets Two-Out-Of-Four Tour. Milwaukee was rooting for a Beat The Mets Three-Out-Of-Four Tour, but New York scored a run in the bottom of the ninth Thursday night for the win. By the way, Lou Piniella sat five of his Cubs regulars.
Now the Cubs come to Miller Park. Not much is at stake -- only a precious NL wild-card spot for either the Brewers or Mets and, you know, unemployment. Milwaukee and New York, which are tied for the wild-card lead, have already gone through one set of managers this season, so there's always the possibility of more pink slips.
Anyway, if the playoff situation were any more fluid it'd be in a bottle of Aquafina. The possibilities are so nerve-racking that Milwaukee interim manager Dale Sveum glances constantly at the out-of-town scoreboard panels on the left-field wall. Eva Mendes could be standing in front of the Brewers dugout and Sveum would tell her to move.
"I look at it the whole game," he says. "That's what's so fun about this. Some players can play a whole 15-year career and never be in this situation."
As recently as Sept. 14, Sveum was the Brewers' third-base coach. On Sept. 15, he was their manager, replacing the most surprised man in America, Ned Yost. Since then, the Brewers have changed coaches, starting pitchers and lineups. And thanks to yet another Mets late-season free fall (losers of four of their past six, eight of their past 14), Milwaukee could squeeze its way past the bouncer and into the postseason club for the first time since 1982.
Sveum isn't Yost. Yost was usually clean-shaven. Sveum has a 5 o'clock shadow by noon. His stubble looks like it could beat up a Hells Angel.
Sveum isn't against small ball, either. Bunts. Sacrifice bunts. Steals. He'll try it all. It doesn't always work, but you can't accuse him of being predictable.
I'm sort of rooting for the Brewers to reach October, partly because it's a better story, and partly because nobody should have to watch the Mets' bullpen. Plus, it would be fun to see if the amazing Sabathia can pitch every inning of an entire NLDS.
Depending on how this weekend shakes out, Sabathia could start Sunday's game against the Cubs. It would be his third consecutive start on short rest, not that the Brewers have much of a choice.
"If it means going to a playoff game, you've got to throw your best pitcher out there," says Sveum. "He's very much up for the opportunity."
Sabathia is 10-2 with a 1.78 ERA since the Brewers acquired him July 7 from the Cleveland Indians for four minor leaguers. He's not going to be here much longer. Sabathia is going to make so much coin on his next free-agent deal that the feds will borrow bailout money from him.
"It's tough in these days of sports, in life, to surpass peoples' expectations," says Counsell. "That's because people put these impossible expectations on stars. But he's surpassed anybody's wildest expectations."
But Sabathia won't pitch Friday. Instead, Jeff Suppan, who hasn't surpassed expectations, will face the Cubs' 17-game winner, Ryan Dempster. Suppan is 0-for-September (winless in four starts, 10.47 ERA).
And TBA was all you got on the Brewers' Thursday media release for Saturday's probable starter. Ben Sheets, who hasn't pitched since injuring his elbow on Wednesday, is talking about making a mound appearance. And while it isn't official, a more likely choice would be Dave Bush, who threw 92 pitches on Tuesday.
Whatever happens, at least the Brewers are still a playoff candidate. A season ago they blew a division lead to the Cubs and were lapped by Colorado for the wild-card spot.
"A slow fade," is how Sheets describes it.
"We started 24-10 and the rest of the season we weren't that good," says Counsell.
"I see our team so different," says Counsell. "I see our season so different. I don't really see us as the same team."
If the Brewers are nervous, they aren't showing it. Shortly before they took the field for warm-ups Thursday, Sabathia was slouched on a couch wondering out loud what kind of football player Kimbo Slice would have made. Sheets walked around with a catcher's mitt on his left hand. First baseman Prince Fielder sat in front of his locker and sprayed cologne on his bald head.
And ask Counsell, Sheets, Sveum and shortstop J.J. Hardy what it's like to be in the passenger seat of this three-game series against the Cubs, and you hear the same word: "fun" -- but with a warning label.
"I think you feel like every game is a do-or-die game," says Counsell. "It's more consuming, for sure."
By the way, Counsell is the guy who coaxed a pinch-hit walk out of reliever Jesse Chavez to load the bases in the bottom of the 10th inning Thursday night. That forced the Pirates to pitch to Ryan Braun, who hit his first career walk-off dinger, which just happened to be his first career grand slam, which just happened to be the first Brewers' grand slam of the season.
So the Brewers and Mets remain tied for the wild card, and the Mets shave a half-game from the Philadelphia Phillies' NL East lead (Philly is ahead by one). Sphincter muscle alert!
"The season's three games now instead of 162," says Sveum. "Every game is a playoff game."
Do-or-die resumes Friday.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Brewers are doing everything they can -- including pitching CC Sabathia seemingly every other day -- to get into the postseason.