Josh Hader dominates again as Brewers gain on Cubs

If the Milwaukee Brewers go on to win the National League Central, remember the two innings Josh Hader threw against the Chicago Cubs on Monday night.

Hader came in to protect a 3-2 lead, faced six batters over two innings, threw 24 pitches ... and fanned all six batters. Jeremy Jeffress pitched the ninth inning for the save -- striking out pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella with the tying run on second base to end it -- and the Brewers trimmed the Cubs' lead in the division to just one game. You could see the emotion in the victory after the final out when Lorenzo Cain turned around to the Cubs fans in the bleachers and raised his fist in triumph.

The six batters Hader faced:

-- David Bote: Struck out swinging on a 96-mph fastball (three pitches)

-- Addison Russell: Struck out swinging on a 97-mph fastball (six pitches)

-- Daniel Murphy: Struck out swinging on a 96-mph fastball (four pitches)

-- Kris Bryant: Struck out swinging on a 94-mph fastball (four pitches)

-- Anthony Rizzo: Struck out swinging on a 97-mph fastball (four pitches)

-- Javier Baez: Struck out looking on a 96-mph fastball (three pitches)

Given the time of the season and the importance of the series, it was the most impressive relief outing of the season. Of course, Hader has been doing this all season with 127 strikeouts in 73⅔ innings, but he has had a couple of shaky outings lately. He gave up four runs to the Reds on Aug. 29 and two to the Cubs last week when Rizzo hit a clutch two-run homer off him in the eighth inning to give the Cubs a 3-2 lead (only to see the Brewers rally for a 4-3 victory).

The Cubs, who held a five-game lead at the beginning of last week, suddenly are in real danger in the Central. Their many rainouts this season also means they have just one off-day the rest of the way while the Brewers have three. That means more work for a bullpen that has been scuffling of late (4.30 ERA since Aug. 20).

In fact, with so many playoff contenders having severe bullpen issues (see also the Diamondbacks, Indians, Red Sox and Cardinals), the Brewers' late-game relief duo of Hader and Jeffress, plus some solid work from rookie Corbin Burnes and the return of Corey Knebel from the minors, has put Milwaukee in good shape to secure at least a wild-card spot.

Check out some bullpen results over the past three weeks (remember that blown saves can come at any point in a game when a lead is blown):

With starters getting pulled earlier and earlier, a lot of these crucial games are going to come down to a battle of the bullpens. With arms dragging and the innings piling up, it's a test of wills. And Hader aced his on Monday.

Verlander returns to Detroit, beats Tigers: The Astros just took two of three from the Red Sox at Fenway Park, but lost a game in the standings anyway as the A's swept the Rangers. In fact, the Astros had won seven of eight entering Monday and picked up just one game in the standings, holding a slim 2½-game lead over Oakland.

So as good as the Astros have been, there's no room to slip up, and Justin Verlander had to keep his emotions in check in his first game back in Detroit since his trade to Houston late last season. In Boston, Verlander said he didn't know what to expect when he took the mound in Detroit.

"I know it's going to be exciting," he told reporters. "I know it's going to be weird. I don't really know -- I think that's something you just can't plan. I'm just going to see what I feel like when I get out there."

Verlander glanced up at the video tribute the Tigers played and tipped his cap to the fans as he received a nice ovation:

Then he had to go out and pitch. He fanned 10 in seven innings of a 3-2 victory, his 10th double-digit strikeout game of the season, tied with Trevor Bauer for third-most in the majors behind Max Scherzer (16) and Chris Sale (11).

"It was almost normal until the tribute video, but that really got to me," Verlander said after the game. "I had a lot of great memories in my 13 years here, and that brought it all back. I wanted to get to the dugout before it started, but once it started playing, I had to watch."

The Astros got all their runs in the third inning, when an error by Tigers shortstop Ronny Rodriguez led to three unearned runs off Francisco Liriano. The Astros got another break in the seventh on this strange double play:

Cardinals rally late: Wild night in St. Louis as Adam Wainwright started for the first time since May 13 and fell behind 4-0 to red-hot Pirates starter Trevor Williams, who has the lowest ERA in the majors since the All-Star break. The Cardinals then tied it with four runs off Williams in the fourth -- he had allowed four runs total over his previous nine starts.

The Pirates took a 6-4 lead off that shaky St. Louis bullpen, but Matt Adams hit a big three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth for an 8-6 lead. New Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez gave up a run, then the game ended with this great play by Paul DeJong to prevent the potential tying run from scoring:

Corey Klubbed: Corey Kluber lasted just 1⅔ innings against the Rays, matching the shortest stint of his career (which came earlier this year against the Cardinals). The weird thing is he retired the first four batters and then this:

That wasn't even the worst part of the game for the Indians. They would rally to take a 5-4 lead, but then with two outs in the bottom of the ninth Tommy Pham singled off Brad Hand and Ji-Man Choi hit a walk-off home run for the team's record 12th straight win at home.

Choi also may have had the walk-off trot of the year:

By the way, the Indians are 81-63. The Rays are 79-64. Unfortunately for the Rays, they're in the wrong division. The Indians are 21 games over .500 within the awful AL Central -- and three games under .500 against everybody else. The Rays are eight games over .500 outside the AL East, including 20-10 against the AL Central. It's no fun being in the same division as the Red Sox and Yankees.

(Yes, we can bring up fairness here and discuss getting rid of divisions. It won't happen. Divisions are as ingrained in the game as the seventh-inning stretch, spitting sunflower seeds and sports writers complaining about the length of games. Sorry about that, Rays, but you continue to be an amazing second-half story.)

Finally, in the West ...: The Rockies clobbered the Diamondbacks 13-2, turning around a 1-0 deficit with six runs in the fifth. A big play in the inning was Rockies pitcher German Marquez reaching on a bunt single, then Trevor Story capped the rally with a three-run blast off reliever Silvino Bracho as the D-backs' bullpen continues to implode.

Marquez, by the way, has been one of MLB's best starters in the second half, with a 4-1 record, 2.63 ERA, 89 K's in 68⅓ innings and now nine straight quality starts. Marquez has added a slider this year, giving him a third weapon to go with his fastball and curveball, and he has refined it throughout the season to take his game to a new level.

Oh, and the Dodgers lost, putting the Rockies' lead at 1½ games.