Almost two weeks to the day after Carlos Zambrano threw the Cubs' first no-hitter in 36 years at the same park, Ted Lilly threw six hitless innings en route to a 7-3 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Daryle Ward hit a two-run homer in the first and Kosuke Fukudome added a two-run shot in the ninth for Chicago, which has won 97 games for the first time since the 1945 team went 98-56-1.
Lilly (17-9), making his final tuneup for the National League Division Series, is the first Cubs lefty to win 17 games since Ken Holtzman did so in 1970. Lilly will start Game 4 of the NLDS, but Lou Piniella has made it clear any one of his four postseason starters could handle the opening assignment for the series.
"With Ted, one of the reasons for Game 4 is he can help us in Game 1 out of the bullpen," Piniella said. "We're trying to keep as many options open as possible. I feel comfortable with all four starters. I've said that all along. How we slot them, we could've slotted them any way and I would've felt comfortable."
The Brewers will start CC Sabathia on short rest again on Sunday. Saturday's loss, coupled with the Mets' win over the Marlins, created a tie in the NL Wild Card race between New York and Milwaukee, both with 89-72 records. If they are still tied at the end of Sunday's regular-season play, the Brewers would play a tiebreaker at Shea Stadium on Monday.
That means the Cubs may not know their first-round opponent until late Monday.
"It's amazing how you play 161 games and it comes down to the last game," Piniella said. "It's unbelievable."
So was Lilly. On Sept. 15, the day after Zambrano's no-no, Lilly gave up one hit over seven innings against Houston in a game at Miller Park. In his past 13 innings in Milwaukee, he's given up two hits, two walks and struck out 13.
J.J. Hardy reached on a throwing error by Cubs shortstop Ronny Cedeno with one out in the second inning, but was forced at second on Corey Hart's grounder. That was the only baserunner until Mike Cameron walked with two outs in the sixth. Ryan Braun led off the seventh with a double down the left-field line that fell out of reach of Reed Johnson. Prince Fielder dropped a single in front of Felix Pie in center before Lilly was pulled. The Cubs fans in the sellout crowd of 45,288 cheered. Braun eventually scored on Hardy's sacrifice fly.
"The little blooper [by Fielder], I thought somebody should've caught it," Piniella said. "It was up there awhile."
If Lilly had gone deeper into the game and not given up any hits, did he want a chance at a no-hitter?
"I don't think so," the lefty said. "It would've been fun to try to take that a little deeper and make it a little more interesting. Ryan Braun is a very good hitter, and I think in that situation, he's hunting fastball. I accept that responsibility. But even if he's looking for a fastball and I execute the pitch, I can get him out on one pitch and get some quick outs that way. All in all, it was nice that we were able to hang on and win."
The Cubs' focus was giving players one last breather. The lineup consisted of only one regular player in Fukudome. Ward, added so he could get some at-bats, made the most of his last-minute start, hitting his fourth homer of the season with two outs and one on in the first off Ben Sheets (13-9). The Cubs loaded the bases with one out in the third and Mike Fontenot added a two-run single to go ahead, 4-0.
Piniella approached Ward during batting practice and asked if he wanted to play.
"I said, 'Yeah, of course I want to play,'" Ward said.
Who wouldn't right now? Lilly was eager to get the next phase of the Cubs' season going.
"It's a special honor to be the Game 1 starter. We'd all like that," Lilly said. "I think we know that Ryan [Dempster] has earned that. After that, you get that first game out of the way and the playoffs start rolling and you don't know what will happen. Rich Harden could start the first game of the next series or I could or [Carlos Zambrano].
"We'll do everything we can to win every game."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.