McClung's night may set weekend tone

McClung goes above, beyond

MILWAUKEE -- Back-up Brewers catcher Mike Rivera wanted to get dressed and head home for the night. A small army of reporters stood in his way.

Rivera lockers next to right-hander Seth McClung, who delivered four inspired innings of relief and shut the door in the Cubs' faces Friday night. The Brewers beat the Cubs, 5-1, and took a one-game lead in the National League Wild Card race with two games to play.

"Come on guys," Rivera teased. "He didn't pitch that well."

On the contrary, Mike. McClung notched the win after he blanked the Cubs on only one hit and one walk, striking out six in what he called the most important game of his baseball life.

It carried equal import for the Brewers, who now can clinch a spot in the postseason by sweeping the Cubs this weekend.

"I've always wanted to be pitching in a big game, in an important game in important situations," McClung said. "I had a lot of fun out there."

It showed. McClung replaced starter Jeff Suppan at the start of the sixth inning when the Cubs and Brewers were locked in a 1-1 tie. Corey Hart delivered a go-ahead hit in the bottom of the sixth, Rickie Weeks blasted a three-run home run in the seventh with McClung on base, and the 6-foot-6 West Virginian took it the rest of the way.

McClung, who has worked in every conceivable pitching role this season, improved to 4-4 on the year with the most important win of his career.

"I had a pretty big Little League game one time," McClung joked. "And I think some Spring Training games down in Tampa were huge."

But seriously...

"By far, this was the biggest game I've ever pitched in," McClung said. "For a lot of us, this is the biggest game we've ever played in."

He pitched similarly well last week in Chicago, when called into emergency relief duty after the Cubs rallied for six runs in the bottom of the ninth inning, all with two outs, to send a game into extra innings. McClung struck out four in two scoreless innings of that game and allowed only one hit.

The Cubs rallied against Carlos Villanueva in the 12th inning and sent the Brewers to one of their most crushing losses this season. Still, manager Dale Sveum remembered the outing when he turned to the hard-throwing McClung on Friday.

"Velocity helps against the Cubs, there's no doubt about it," Sveum said. "They're a very good breaking-ball hitting team. They're very good against 'medium bowlers.' If you have velocity on the mound, that helps a lot against them."

The Brewers sent reliever Grant Balfour to Tampa Bay last July for McClung in a change-of-scenery trade. Both players had live arms but had yet to hone their command, and both have flourished this season. Balfour has a 1.42 ERA in 50 appearances out of Tampa's bullpen, while McClung lowered his own ERA on Friday to 4.02. He has made 25 relief appearances and 12 starts.

His outing Friday night helped Sveum give the rest of the bullpen a much-needed night off before the final two games of the regular season. That was especially important for the key late-inning arms; Salomon Torres and Eric Gagne had each pitched in three straight games before Friday, and Guillermo Mota in two of the last three.

"I was a little emotional after the game, just seeing where I've come from," McClung said, "a kid who just threw hard and didn't know where it was going, to where I am now."

If light-hitting shortstop Jason Bartlett can be voted the club MVP for Tampa Bay by local sportswriters, maybe a former Ray can win the award in Milwaukee.

At least Sveum thinks so.

"You could almost vote him to be our MVP, especially if we get into the playoffs," Sveum said Friday after watching the biggest performance of McClung's career. "That guy has stepped into the starting role when [Yovani] Gallardo went down and did a heck of a job. He's done everything we asked of him."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.