In 2018, it was a 20-7 record during the final month of the season that propelled the Milwaukee Brewers towards their improbable National League Central Division title. Christian Yelich drove the bus offensively with the heroics that eventually led to his first MVP award, and Craig Counsell’s bullpenning philosophy relied heavily on the likes of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Corey Knebel, and Jeremy Jeffress, at least on days when Jhoulys Chacin wasn’t delivering quality starts. They finished with a league-best 96 wins after taking down the Cubs in a sudden-death, game 163 showdown at Wrigley Field, and got all the way to game seven of the NLCS — the deepest postseason run this generation of fans has seen — before bowing out.
It certainly didn’t feel like this year’s version of the Brewers had that capability when the final month of the 2019 regular season rolled around, though. After losing to Chicago 7-1 on August 30th, their record stood a mere two games over .500 at 68-66. The club had been treading water for most of the season and suddenly found themselves in third place, six games out of the division race. Fangraphs gave them 7.4% odds to make the playoffs and a 1.5% chance to capture the division. The offense had been inconsistent and the pitching shoddy, apparently lacking the same overall level of talent that the 2018 unit possessed.
That makes the run that this team has been on for the last four weeks all the more incredible. Since dropping that opening game on the road at Wrigley Field, the Brewers have been the best team in baseball, winning 20 games while dropping only four. There has been a four-game winning streak and a pair of seven-gamers, including an active one after today’s 5-3 sweep-completing triumph over the Reds. That has pushed Milwaukee’s record 89-70. Counsell’s squad clinched back-to-back playoff berths for the first time since 1981-82 with their win on Wednesday, and entering the final weekend of the regular season they now sit just one game back of the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, who will face Chicago for three games at Busch Stadium.
What is even more astounding is that Milwaukee is accomplishing all of this despite losing their MVP more than two weeks ago to a season-ending injury. Yelich was somehow having an even better season than he did last year when he broke his kneecap on a foul ball on September 10th, and many fans and pundits wrote the team off even further after revelations of how serious the injury was. Also absent is Knebel, who hasn’t thrown a pitch since blowing out his elbow in Spring Training, as well as Jeffress and Chacin, who both pitched so poorly that they were released. Woodruff, who became an All-Star starter this season, has thrown only four innings this month after returning from a lengthy absence due to an oblique injury. Burnes has regressed so badly this season that he’s largely been a non-factor.
Instead, new heroes have stepped to the forefront and etched their names into Milwaukee baseball lore. The offense as a whole hasn’t exactly been outstanding, ranking fifth on the Senior Circuit in runs scored for the month of September and sixth in wRC+ prior to today’s game, but several individuals have raised their games in the moments that have mattered most. A pair of rookies have made significant contributions — outfielder Trent Grisham has stepped into an almost everyday role in Yelich’s place and owns a 127 wRC+ in 85 plate appearances mostly as leadoff hitter, and Keston Hiura has returned from a hamstring to post a 131 wRC+ with three dingers in 10 games. Free agent signee Yasmani Grandal has been worth every penny of his contact this year and that has been especially true in September, leading the team with six homers and a 152 wRC+. Mike Moustakas hasn’t been quite as hot, but he has hit some timely home runs. Speaking of well-timed long balls, Ryan Braun has smashed a few of those lately and leads the club with 17 RBI. Eric Thames continues to make the case for his contract option to get picked up, and even Lorenzo Cain is having his best month of what has been a down offensive season, though he continues to provide stellar defense in center field.
Make no mistake about it, however. The reason for this team’s stretch of success has been the pitching staff. No unit has been stingier when it comes to preventing runs in September than Milwaukee, who had a 2.77 ERA for the month before allowing three earned runs in today’s tilt. With expanded rosters and Craig Counsell at his best, it has taken a village to catapult the Brewers into the postseason. Josh Hader remains as a stalwart from last season, this time thrust into the closer’s role thanks to the aforementioned injuries and attrition. Zach Davies and Gio Gonzalez, too, have been top-level performers this year after pitching important innings down the stretch in 2018. Chase Anderson was left off the postseason roster last year, but should Milwaukee make it past the Wild Card round, he doesn’t figure to suffer the same fate. The unexpected ace has been Jordan Lyles, who Baseball America recently dubbed “the most impactful addition” of the 2019 trade deadline. As the key piece in the much-maligned Mauricio Dubon deal, Drew Pomeranz has found second life as a suddenly dominant reliever. Brent Suter missed last postseason after Tommy John surgery, but returned barely a year later and has so far pitched 17.1 innings of middle relief while allowing only one run. Alex Claudio and Junior Guerra continue to take the ball whenever they’re asked, and Freddy Peralta seems to have found the right mix of rest and relief pitching in order to maximize his effectiveness.
They have clinched a Wild Card berth at worst, but that’s no reason for our beloved local nine to rest on their laurels during the final series of the season in Colorado. The club will have to hope to avoid any Coors Field craziness, and also that they get some help from those dastardly Northside Chicago boys as they close out the year in St. Louis (even though Joe Maddon says he’s playing his B-squad and he doesn’t “give a shit” what you think about it.) Regardless of what happens, though, the run that this team has put together, with these players, the after countless number of “season is over” moments that have happened this year has been simply astounding to watch.
As they say, you can’t predict baseball.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs