The Milwaukee Brewers were slugging the ball into the stands -- and onto Waveland and Sheffield -- with the wind blowing out during batting practice at Wrigley Field as they opened their big series with the Cubs Tuesday night. Even so, the mood around the Brewers' batting cage was markedly different from the last time they were here. The sunken-eyed Ryan Braun, the "Hebrew Hammer," was quietly efficient as usual, smashing balls into the left-field stands, but the left-handed slugger Prince Fielder eschewed the personal sound effects ("Bam!") he offered last time he was taking swings in the Wrigley cage. The few Milwaukee fans in the Wrigley grandstand before the game tried to make up for it by hooting and cheering Fielder's every tape-measure clout that landed deep in the bleachers or out on Sheffield, but on the field the Brew Crew was silent -- no batting-practice games or situational hitting -- and manager Ned Yost worked his chewing gum hard, with his jaw muscles tense and flexing.
And with good reason. The Brewers entered the series having surrendered first place in the National League Central Division to the Cubs by losing four straight, 10 of 13, 14 of 19, and 19 of 27 since mid-July, when pitching ace Ben Sheets went on the disabled list with the Brewers leading the Cubs by three-and-a-half games. They were, to paraphrase the Cubs' old TV announcer Jack Brickhouse, a snake-bitten Brewer ball club, and that they'd stay. They claimed a 3-0 lead early, but starter Jeff Suppan gave one back when he allowed Cub pitcher Rich Hill a run-scoring single, and the Cubs went ahead with four runs in the seventh, the lead run scoring on an error by Milwaukee reliever Scott Linebrink. The Cubs won, 5-3, on Lou Piniella's birthday. Through it all, the Brewers' batting-practice power only led to overaggressiveness in the game, as they chased numerous high fastballs. It was the 14th time this season the Brewers have lost after blowing a lead of three runs or more -- the most in the majors. At the end of the night, the Brewers had fallen into third place behind the Saint Louis Cardinals, and they looked done. They couldn't get any tighter.