CHICAGO -- Much of the success the Braves have achieved this season can be attributed to the contributions of a bullpen that has proven to be one of the game's best. But with the playoffs quickly approaching, there is reason to be concerned about this once-rock-solid relief corps.
After Kris Medlen brought them within five outs of clinching the National League East on Saturday afternoon, the Braves saw their bullpen allow the Cubs to rally to a 3-1 victory courtesy of a three-run eighth inning.
"As a former bullpen guy, I know how tough that job is," Medlen said. "The dudes do their best, and they have carried us the entire year. These things happen and nobody in this clubhouse is panicking or anything."
There will be more opportunities for the Braves to celebrate clinching their first division title since 2005. They simply need to win one of their remaining eight games or hope Washington loses just one more time before the season concludes next week. The Nationals-Marlins game was rained out Saturday night, and the teams will play a day-night doubleheader Sunday in Washington. The first game is scheduled to begin at 1:35 p.m. ET, 45 minutes before first pitch at Wrigley Field.
But the Braves did not have a mulligan to use after squandering a Medlen effort that should at least enhance his candidacy to be named the Game 1 starter for the Braves in the National League Division Series.
"I thought Medlen was terrific," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But at the end of the day, we only scored one run and got five hits. We had some opportunities to add on some runs and couldn't get those runs plated. When you don't get those add-on runs, it always seems to come back to haunt you."
While scoring just one run with the help of an error against an effective Travis Wood, the Braves once again showed how much different their lineup is without the presence of Jason Heyward, who rested for the first seven innings of Saturday's game after playing five innings on Friday in what was his first game since he fractured his jaw on Aug. 21.
But while Heyward will return to the lineup on Sunday, the Braves don't know when they might once again be able to hand a late-inning lead to their bullpen with great confidence. Saturday's loss marked the third time in their past eight games that they saw their relievers blow a lead after the sixth inning.
There was a time when the Braves would have confidently handed any late-inning lead to setup men Jordan Walden or Luis Avilan. But Walden has been shaky in two of the three appearances he's made since missing three weeks with a sore groin, and Avilan has posted a 4.32 ERA while allowing opponents to hit .324 against him in his past 12 appearances.
Medlen entered the eighth inning having thrown 98 pitches and exited after allowing Starlin Castro's one-out single. This prompted the entry of left-hander Scott Downs, who allowed a single to Donnie Murphy and then surrendered Anthony Rizzo's opposite-field, game-tying double, which barely hit inside the left-field foul line.
"That's the kind of situations you want to be in," Downs said. "It's just when it goes like that, in a game like this, the way [Medlen] threw the ball. That's what is frustrating. I wouldn't have done anything any differently. You just have to turn the page and go from there."
After Downs surrendered hits to the only two batters he faced, reliever David Carpenter allowed the Cubs to take the lead with Dioner Navarro's single to right field. Nate Schierholtz followed with a sacrifice fly that gave the Cubs a two-run lead.
"Medlen pitched his butt off for us today, and we just didn't come through for him," Carpenter said. "It really, really stinks, especially with the effort he gave. He was unbelievable. That's a tough pill to swallow."
Chris Johnson improved his bid for a batting title and aided Medlen's effort with a two-hit performance that included a fourth-inning single to put runners at first and second base. Evan Gattis followed with a sharp single that allowed Freddie Freeman to score from second base after Schierholtz fumbled the ball in right field.
The Braves could have done further damage in the fourth, but the inning ended with B.J. Upton looking at a called third strike with the bases loaded. One inning earlier, Upton had laced a line drive that appeared to be a sure double before Ryan Sweeney made a sensational catch while crashing into the brick outfield wall.
Medlen scattered six hits while matching a season-high 7 1/3 innings. The early-season woes that haunted him have been put in the rearview mirror as he's produced a 1.03 ERA over his past five starts.
"I felt like the game was in my hands, and I felt like the game was over, really," Medlen said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.