An extra-innings Mets loss to the Cubs, coupled with the Brewers' win at Miller Park, left New York and Milwaukee at the top of the NL Wild Card standings with equal 87-71 records. Both teams have four games to play.
The Mets have four games to avoid a repeat of last year's collapse. The Brewers, who were 2 1/2 games behind the Mets on Sunday morning, have four games to end a postseason drought that spans a quarter century.
If a tiebreaker exists after the final day of the season vs. either the Mets, Phillies or Astros, the Brewers would have to play a one-game playoff on the road in each scenario.
"We're still breathing," Sabathia said.
They are also suddenly winning; three in a row after a 4-15 start to September and 11 straight wins over the Pirates this season. They won Wednesday thanks partly to Sabathia (10-2), who snapped a personal two-game losing streak, and partly thanks to Pirates starter Paul Maholm (9-9), who surrendered Milwaukee's only two hits in the game and issued four walks in the decisive fourth inning.
Prince Fielder stayed hot with an RBI single that tied the game at 1 and would be Milwaukee's last hit in the game. Later in the inning, with the bases loaded, Maholm walked Rickie Weeks and Jason Kendall in consecutive plate appearances for a 3-1 Brewers lead.
"A lot of times when you watch playoff games on TV, they're usually lone-run, two-run games," said Weeks, who was 0-for-1 but drew three walks. "You can't always look for the home run all the time.
The Brewers manufactured another run in the sixth without the benefit of a hit. Fielder reached second on a two-base error charged to first baseman Adam LaRoche. J.J. Hardy bunted Fielder to third and Corey Hart lined a sacrifice fly to deep center field for a 4-1 lead.
"We're not really accustomed to winning like that," said acting manager Dale Sveum, who has imposed his brand of small ball on the homer-happy Brewers.
But they are certainly accustomed to winning behind Sabathia. The Brewers traded for the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner in July and he won each of his first nine decisions with six complete games.
He may depart via free agency after the season, but is working every fourth day to extend his stay in Milwaukee.
"You hope to God that you get to the playoffs and make that thing really, really look like the best trade of all time," Sveum said. "It's catapulted us to this position, and there is a chance that it will come down to Sunday. If it's tied, you'll probably see the best pitcher in baseball go out."
If he is used again on Sunday, Sabathia would be making his third straight start on short rest.
"We're worried about his future as well, because that guy has done everything he can for this organization, whether we sign him back or not," Sveum said. "He's just one of those special human beings that comes around every once in a while."
Sabathia got off to a shaky start in a 28-pitch first inning. After retiring leadoff man Nyjer Morgan, Freddy Sanchez doubled and moved to third on a Ryan Doumit single before Sabathia walked Jason Michaels. That loaded the bases with one out, but Sabathia got a called third strike on LaRoche and then whiffed Steve Pearce swinging to escape.
After watching Sabathia's pitch count spike in the first inning, Svuem began planning as if his starter would be out after the fifth. Instead, Sabathia surrendered two singles and one more walk the rest of the way, and when Sveum warmed up Eric Gagne for the start of the seventh inning, his starter gave him a look that said he intended to keep pitching.
"I think he was going to take me out, probably, after the sixth," Sabathia said. "I don't know if I looked a little [ticked] off or whatever, but there was no way I was giving him the ball after that sixth inning. I just felt good and I felt I could get one more in."
Said Sveum: "He's 6-foot-8. He could pinch my neck off."
After Sabathia's 19th career double-digit strikeout performance, Gagne pitched a scoreless eighth inning after a bit of a delay while a member of the grounds crew filled in a hole dug by Sabathia's plant foot. Salomon Torres surrendered a solo home run to LaRoche in the ninth but hung it there for his 28th save.
The Brewers play one more game against the Pirates on Thursday and then host the NL Central champion Cubs for a weekend series. The Mets, meanwhile, finish their series with the Cubs on Thursday and then host the Marlins for three games.
If the Brewers face a meaningful game in Sunday's regular-season finale, Sabathia said there is no doubt he will make it three straight starts on three days' rest.
"If it matters, I want to pitch," he said. "It doesn't matter how many days of rest or whatever, I feel like I want to be out there."
How many pitches could he throw in that game?
"A hundred and seventy-five," Sabathia said, and he might just have been serious. "Just whatever it takes. Like I said, whatever it takes right now to get us in the playoffs is what I'll do."