In a long-suffering 2019 campaign, the Milwaukee Brewers, by commission or omission, have been utterly unable to get out of their own way. Having backed themselves into a corner, their Friday night showdown with the rival Chicago Cubs had deep and lasting implications for October dreams. And they responded with what might be their finest showing in a season with far too few comparables. Now, they live to fight another day.
This wasn’t the type of summer anyone around Miller Park had envisioned. In fact, when Las Vegas sportsbooks placed the Brewers around 86 wins, Brewers fans scoffed. The team that finished with the best record in the National League? The defending NL Central champs? Take the over!
In reality, this has been a snake-bitten, star-crossed season for denizens of the Menomonee River Valley, and that was evident going back to Maryvale. Reliever Corey Knebel was ruled out of 2019 action and opted for Tommy John and, by extension, a fighting chance at returning in 2020.
No worries, we have Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress! While Hader’s strikeout ratios are eye-popping and he boasts 28 saves as the de facto closer, he has also yielded a career-high 13 home runs with roughly three weeks still to go in the regular season. Jeffress, a beloved Brewer and a personal favorite of this writer, was designated for assignment. The patchwork bullpen has two feast-or-famine types in Matt Albers and Alex Claudio and Junior Guerra and the rest of the cast, a revolving door of guys racking up frequent flyer miles between San Antonio and Milwaukee with no non-stop routes between them. (Thanks, Frontier. Hurry back, Midwest Express.)
And the hitting? Well, beyond Dingermania, Miller Lite Field and the sort, the Brewers as a team are hitting .238 with runners in scoring position, .228 with the bases loaded, .207 with runners at second and third and just aren’t there in high-leverage situations, slashing .237/.316/.454. Christian Yelich continues his Ted Williams 2.0 impression (though his hitting has fallen off in recent weeks), Lorenzo Cain has fought injuries and poor performance at the plate all season, while Keston Hiura, who was finally called up to stabilize second base, is now injured. Jesus Aguilar wilted under the pressure of stardom and is now in Tampa. Orlando Arcia showed signs of evolving as a hitter but has since regressed back to form; he is what he likely will be at this point.
And the starting pitching that took people by surprise in 2018 surprised exactly no one this season, unless the surprise was in just how underwhelming the rotation was. Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta weren’t ready for the role thrust upon them. Jimmy Nelson returned, only to be returned to the IL and minor leagues. Brandon Woodruff was doing a solid Corey Kluber impression until he tweaked a core muscle and is only now beginning to show readiness to return to the bump. Jhoulys Chacin fell prey to the purported Opening Day starter curse and started Friday night…for the Boston Red Sox. Zach Davies overachieved until his back betrayed him.
It’s been a lot of drama and frustration and concomitant social media finger-pointing. Many Brewers fans made their appointed seasonal pivot to their Packers paramours earlier than a year ago. (More likely, the Brewers are the real interlopers in Packers-frenzied Wisconsin.) And there the Brewers were, entering Friday night 71-68, 7.5 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals, behind the Cubs and the wild card spots. The division slipping from their grasp and the Nationals, Mets and Diamondbacks all upshifting into September baseball, the Brewers needed to turn out Friday night.
And, 550 or so words later, the Brewers not only won, but they reminded of the club that won 96 games when the 2018 calendar turned to October and they were still on the dance card.
Their 7-1 win only counts as one in the standings, but with the Cards also defeated Friday night, they kept themselves closer to the upper-echelon, postseason-contending Cubs and Cards than lurching toward the irrelevance of the Reds and Pirates, Aristides Aquino and Bryan Reynolds notwithstanding. They got a commanding performance from Davies, who was pulled after five innings and 79 pitches. They chased rival starter and historic Brewers bugaboo Cole Hamels and feasted on a vulnerable Cubs bullpen. They got a mammoth dong from Yelich, went 3-12 with RISP, bunted–you know, the things that homers typically complain to Matt Pauley about not seeing.
More importantly, though, there was urgency.
I tuned into the game in the third and misread the 4-1 score. (I won’t apologize for still being amped that one of my girls learned to ride her bike last night, on a picture-perfect September Friday night, with beauty the likes of which only serve to remind of the dead and frozen hellscape to come in about three months’ time. Some mistakes are worth making. Not making time for my kids is not one of them. Misreading the box score, in contrast, is.) After the dud laid Thursday, and a spanking that could only be delivered by a team from the north side of Chicago, I thought the Brewers were dead. Then I adjusted and realized Yelich had jacked the three-run homer.
And then it was like 2018 all over again. The Brewers played with conviction. They did all the right things. The Cubs were held hitless after the third inning with brilliant appearances by Brent Suter (truly a sight for sore Brewers fans’ eyes everywhere), Guerra and newcomer Ray Black, who made Nicholas Castellanos look foolish with a gorgeous, knee-bending called strike three for the second out in the ninth.
The baseball this season hasn’t been very pretty for Milwaukee. Some nights, and many days, it’s been plain unwatchable. They haven’t had a winning streak longer than five games since early May. Unable to sustain winning performance, and injuries to boot, one needs an encyclopedic knowledge of the Brewers organization to figure out who is where and when. The Chris Hook and Yasmani Grandal learning curves probably complicated things for Brewer hurlers (and let’s be real; no one was ready to beatify Derek Johnson after his first year as pitching coach, either.)
There’s plenty of time for all of this to yet go sideways. The Brewers can get boatraced or heartbroken yet tonight and tomorrow and the good feels this morning go all for naught. They could punch back, take the series from the Cubs and use this to finally hit their stride toward a repeat, unlikely October billing. If this season has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is certain…save for Mike Trout‘s continued greatness.
On a late summer night, though, in front of a crowd that was either Cubs fans or otherwise still relishing a Packers victory over the Bears the night prior, the Brewers showed us everything that made them dangerous a year ago.
And maybe, just maybe, they showed us it’s possible for them to do it again.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.