Jon Lester's departure leads to Brewers closing gap on Cubs

CHICAGO -- First, it was Jon Lester's back, then it was Josh Hader's arm. Both contributed to the Milwaukee Brewers' 3-2 win over the Chicago Cubs on Monday, drawing them to within one game of the two-time defending National League Central Division champions.

Lester had to leave after 5⅔ innings due to back spasms, handing the ball to much maligned reliever CJ Edwards, who promptly threw a wild one on his first pitch, allowing the winning run to score. Lester thought he might have hurt his back on a swing earlier in the game.

"I think it will be fine," he said afterward. "It's not anything painful, just kind of uncomfortable."

Painful was watching Edwards enter a tie game with men on second and third and two outs. It's a decision by Cubs manager Joe Maddon worthy of second guessing: Over his past 15 appearances, Edwards had walked 10 and given up eight hits. With a rested bullpen -- the Cubs were rained out Sunday -- Maddon could have chosen any number of arms, but instead, called upon the least reliable of his top relievers.

"I just wanted to reduce his outing tonight to one out," Maddon explained. "Once Jon was in the situation he was in, I thought, 'Get Carl out there, get one out, let him walk off the field, feel good about himself, and then you have the other guys for the rest of the game.'

"We need to get Carl straightened out. The symmetry of the bullpen is different without him out there. His skill set is really important to us. We have to get him right."

The Cubs do, indeed, need a good Edwards for October, but they might not get there by pitching him in a high-leverage situation right now. To add insult to injury, Edwards didn't exactly hustle to cover home on the wild pitch. And so after taking the lead, Brewers manager Craig Counsell called on Hader, the dynamic lefty, for the next two innings. He struck out all six batters he faced, the first time that has happened (facing at least six and striking them all out) for a pitcher since 2013, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

"What are you going to do with that?" Lester said rhetorically. "The guy is throwing 97 mph. He's basically Chris Sale from a relief standpoint, with his angle and everything."

The Cubs stranded the tying run at second in the ninth, after Hader had already left. The Brewers have now won four in a row while the Cubs have dropped their past three after spending more time waiting to play during rain delays over the weekend in Washington than actually playing. Cubs second baseman Daniel Murphy was asked how he views a lead of just one game now.

"It's all through the lens you look at," he said. "We have 20 games left? [Actually 19.] We have a game lead? A lot of people would have taken that. I know I would have coming out of spring training or the All-Star break. We still have two games against Milwaukee here. Hopefully we can put up some crooked numbers and even the series up."

Scoring is a whole other issue for the Cubs right now. They aren't getting much production but from a few guys near the top of the lineup.

"After it gets past four/five, it really falls off a cliff a bit," Maddon said. "We really have to get the bottom part playing."

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, since Aug.1, the Cubs' top five hitters in their lineup have an OPS of .807, good for seventh in the league. Their bottom four hitters rank 11th in the NL over that time frame, with a .605 OPS. On top of it all, because of rainouts, the Cubs are in the midst of reporting to the ballpark for 30 consecutive days. That stretch doesn't end until Sept. 20. And right now they're facing a hot rival, who's putting their third consecutive division title in jeopardy.

"They have a nice group and they have a nice bench," Maddon said of the Brewers. "And a variety of different arms in the bullpen. They are a really formidable opponent, no question."