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"Well," Lou Piniella was saying, "what can you do?"

This was an hour or so before the Chicago manager first decided on the newly arrived Ryan Freel at third base before going with a 31-year-old rookie at the historically troublesome position Aramis Ramirez had held with distinction for the better part of six seasons.

Who knows when Ramirez will return, if at all this year? And his dreadful-looking shoulder separation from the night before was beyond the other problems facing the Cubs, such as no Carlos Zambrano or Derrek Lee for the time being.

During their rise to prominence, the Milwaukee Brewers have managed to overcome health concerns like the occasional Rickie Weeks mishaps, the annual Ben Sheets breakdowns and the massive hole blown into Yovani Gallardo's 2008 season. So if the Cubs are suddenly dealing with potentially division-altering issues, well, that's Baseball.

"Nobody's going to feel sorry for us," Piniella said. "Our guys are going to have to start swinging the bats better, and we'll go from there."

That was the thing about the National League Central this year. Chicago was supposed to have enough offense to cover any of its pitching deficiencies, but Lee was struggling before he got hurt and the Cubs were near the bottom of the league in hitting even as Ramirez took his .364 average into medical rehab.

All of this was exacerbating the Cubs' relief problems, to the point that Piniella said, "We're going to put up a good bullpen here before long. Give us a little time."

Time they've got. And while no one could say at this early date if the balance of power in the division has suddenly shifted from the two-time defending champions, the Brewers continue to encroach on merit with that one quality you never thought would sustain them.

Saturday night at Miller Park was another testament to their pitching. It was a dream-type matchup, Gallardo against certified Brewers killer Ryan Dempster, but it was more than that.

In circumstances to match the drama from Friday night, the Brewers' bullpen came up aces like the starter. With bases loaded in a one-run game in the seventh and the full house standing and screaming like it was September, lefty specialist Mitch Stetter struck out Lee's replacement, Micah Hoffpauir, on three pitches. This was the same Hoffpauir who, two innings earlier, had done all Chicago's damage against Gallardo with a two-run homer.

As an encore, Carlos Villanueva, who hadn't exactly earned anyone's confidence yet, ended the crisis by inducing a full-count fielder's choice.

Admit it. Just was you were concerned about the losses of Sheets and CC Sabathia, you were worried about the direction of the developing staff with pitching coach Mike Maddux now in Texas.

"Billy Castro's done a great job with those guys," manager Ken Macha said about the longtime bullpen coach who is finally getting a well-deserved shot. Except for the way Jorge Julio nearly trashed the effort in a mop-up eighth, the pen is starting to come around at a level coveted by the Cubs while the starters are giving the Brewers every chance to succeed.

As for the hitting, even Dempster wasn't a deterrent this time. Craig Counsell and Ryan Braun went back-to-back in a seventh in which the Brewers beat Dempster and the Cubs' battered pen into submission in the kind of rout that confirmed Piniella's concerns before the game.

Like Miller Park literally in the eighth, the Brewers were lights out on the Cubs, whose vulnerabilities were exploited by the challenger that could care less about the kind of problems they've seen.

And that's what you can do.

Copyright 2009, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.)

Author:Fox Sports
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Added: May 10, 2009

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