Milwaukee blew a four-run lead in the ninth and suffered a crippling 7-6 defeat in 12 innings to the Cubs.
"This is our toughest loss of the year, by far," said left fielder Ryan Braun, who critically misplayed a ball in the ninth, one of a series of unfortunate events that kept the Cubs alive.
Chicago first baseman Derrek Lee hit a walk-off single off Carlos Villanueva in the 12th to give the Cubs a series win and keep Milwaukee from taking a head of steam into a three-game set at Cincinnati. With the loss and the Mets' win in Washington, the Brewers fell 1 1/2 games behind the Mets in the National League Wild Card race.
"A real nice day kind of went haywire right away," interim manager Dale Sveum said.
To help prevent a collapse, Sveum turned to closer Salomon Torres in a non-save situation in the ninth. Up 6-2, Torres got the first two outs. Then the inning fell apart in what might turn out to be a microcosm of Milwaukee's season.
Aramis Ramirez doubled to left on a sinking liner that could have been caught by Braun to end the game. Instead, the ball dropped below his glove and set the table for the comeback. How close was Braun to snaring it?
"Real close," he said. "It was a knuckling line drive. It's not an easy play, a play I maybe make half of the time. It was kind of do-or-die. You don't figure they're going to score four runs after that."
But they did. Jim Edmonds singled home Ramirez, and Mark DeRosa singled as well to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of rookie Geovany Soto. The All-Star catcher hammered Torres' first pitch to the left-center bleachers, tying the game at 6 and signaling extras.
"I take full responsibility for what happened," Torres said. "I wish I could go back and do that over again. I guarantee you I get him out, but it's not possible. There's nothing we can do. As much as it hurts, as much as you're disappointed because you had the control, just one more pitch, one pitch."
Torres pointed out an oxymoronic problem with the pitch, a sinker. It was left up, and then it sank too much.
"I was a pitch away to seal the deal, and I didn't," Torres said. "I didn't make good pitches, therefore we lost the game."
Three innings later, Milwaukee had a big chance to rectify what transpired in the ninth. J.J. Hardy singled, and Corey Hart legged out a double to put runners on second and third with no outs in the 12th. The Cubs brought the infield in. All the Brewers needed was a sacrifice fly. What Kerry Wood (5-4) got were groundouts from Craig Counsell, Jason Kendall and Joe Dillon, allowing him to escape. Carlos Marmol and Wood had retired the side in the 10th and 11th, respectively, striking out five.
"We didn't get it done," Counsell said.
Neither did Villanueva (4-7), Milwaukee's seventh pitcher of the game. The right-hander came in for the 12th and scattered two walks among two sacrifice outs, putting runners at second and third for Lee, who singled to center to end the game after three hours and 47 minutes.
Like Braun said, this one hurt badly.
"We're in a situation where we kind of have to win every game," Hart said. "We're going out there fighting."
Starter Dave Bush held the Cubs to a pair of solo home runs and was taken out for a pinch-hitter in the sixth. He gave Sveum all he could have asked for on three days' rest. Cubs starter Rich Harden left after five innings and 115 pitches with a 2-1 lead. He had held Milwaukee hitless for the first 4 1/3.
The Brewers pounced on Harden's replacement, rookie reliever Jeff Samardzija. Mike Cameron, Ray Durham and Braun slapped RBI singles to go up, 4-2, in the sixth. Samardzija was replaced by Randy Wells, who issued a bases-loaded walk to Hardy on four pitches to make it 5-2, before Hart made his second out of the inning.
Hart doubled in an insurance run in the ninth. It could have been two extra runs, but Hardy was thrown out at home trying to score from first. In retrospect, third-base coach Garth Iorg's decision to send Hardy, Braun's misplay, Torres' poor sinker and the stranded runners in the 12th cost the club its 85th win.
"It's tough to swallow, especially the way it happened," Sveum said. "Obviously, we had it in our hands, and we let it get away."
Brewers players all but conceded the division to the Cubs when they were eight games back going into the series. But Chicago still felt the pressure, especially after Milwaukee's win on Wednesday. Now, the magic number for eliminating Milwaukee from the division race is down to two.
"They're the team behind us, and you don't want to give them momentum," Lee said. "All of a sudden, they beat us two games in a row, and it gives them momentum. It's not over. I don't care how big your lead is, it's not over."
The Brewers are taking a similar mindset with three series remaining, the first at Cincinnati, then back home versus Pittsburgh and the Cubs. It's not over, but the results have to change quickly.
"A lot of good things happened in this series, but obviously, you run out of games," Sveum said. "It gets to the point, with whatever the Mets do and the other guys, you start thinking you've got to win seven out of nine, eight out of nine. That's what it's getting to."
Nick Zaccardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.