When I last wrote about the Brewers on May 31, the Crew was in first place, and I wondered about the lack of starting pitching and whether the relief staff would be able to be effective throughout the long season. The next three months were no picnic for Brewers fans, as they finished just one game over .500 from June 1 through August 31, slipping out of first place to the Cubs by the end of July and slipping out of second by the end of August. But unlike years past, the Brewers have managed to bend but not break.
For me the season’s nadir was a 9-1 defeat against the Pirates on August 25. I texted a fellow Brewer fan, “I think that’s the end of the road for the Crew.” Here we are less than three weeks later, and the Brewers are on a seven-series winning streak, having won 16 of the last 22 games, including 4 of 6 against the division-leading Chicago Cubs, and culminating in an exciting 5-1 victory last night to pull to within one game of first place. With fifteen games left to play, the Brewers, at 84-63, have matched the number of victories I predicted they would win at the beginning of the year. I couldn’t be happier for having been wrong.
So what happened? Why has this year’s team been able to hang in there? I think there are a few reasons:
1) Mid-season pickups: general manager David Stearns didn’t find the solid starting pitcher he’d been hoping for, but he did manage to pick up three players before each trading deadline, finding just enough talent to help bolster a tired team. Prior to August 1, he traded for relief pitcher Joakim Soria, and infielders Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop. Soria helped bolster the bullpen just as the unit that had been so incredible for the first half of the season was starting to show signs of fatigue, and while Schoop has been a disappointment thus far, Moustakas has given the Crew a solid bat, allowing manager Craig Counsell to adjust the lineup based on matchups. Then, prior to September 1, Stearns once again picked up three players: relief pitcher Xavier Cedeno, starter Gio Gonzales and outfielder Curtis Granderson, the hero of last night’s game. Time will tell how these three contribute, but there’s no question that having Gonzalez as another starting option in lieu of the struggling Junior Guerra and Freddy Peralta is a plus, and Granderson gives the Brewers another option in the outfield where Eric Thames has been an absolute bust, both offensively and defensively.
2) September call-ups arrived just in time. The relief staff had endured injuries and sub-par performances from Matt Albers, Corey Knebel and Dan Jennings, and even Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress showed signed of wear during the dog days of August. With September call-ups, Counsell can now give relievers the time off they need and pull starters at the first sign of trouble. Case in point: last night starting pitcher Chase Anderson left the game after four innings of shutout ball. Why? Well, he’d gotten hit pretty hard during those four innings, and the Brewers have an excellent relief staff with a day off today, so there was no reason not to throw everything at the Cubs. Unlike so many of Counsell’s predecessors, he’s willing to treat today like there’s no tomorrow. This bodes well for a team that still might end up making the playoffs as a wild card, a game that can and should be treated like the seventh game of the World Series.
3) The return of Zach Davies. The starting pitching has been just good enough this year, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that seven starters have spent time on the DL this year, including a total season loss of Jimmy Nelson, a first half loss of Wade Miley and a second half loss (and all of next year) of Brent Suter. These are not run-of-the-mill DL stints, yet somehow the Brewers starters have kept it together. Davies’s return came just in time, and if Gio Gonzalez manages to pitch well for his three remaining starts, the Brewers should be in good shape until playoff time. After that, all bets are off.
4) Lorenzo Cain and Chistian Yelich. Enough said.
Winning a wild-card berth is cold comfort these days in the MLB; a one-game playoff is a cruel reward, and I love that the Brewers at least have a chance to win the division. It’s important to note that National League parody has allowed teams like the Brewers to stay in the hunt this year – the Brewers’ .571 winning percentage would place them in a distant third place in two of the three American League divisions. But unlike the AL, the NL doesn’t have any doormats in the league; there’s no Baltimore Orioles or Kansas City Royals to beat up on (even the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres have shown signs of life). But the NL Central is eminently competitive. Think the Cincinnati Reds blow? Tell that to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who finally beat the Reds last night to finish the season series 1-6. The Boston Red Sox may have an incredible team, but 20 percent of their 100 wins have come against two teams: the Orioles and Royals. It’s entirely possible that Boston isn’t as unstoppable as some claim.
Then again, this year’s World Series might play second fiddle to the Main Event of the ALCS. We shall see, but I’m hoping against hope that the Brewers will be a part of it somehow. No matter what happens, it’s been a fun 2018.