Game 1 of the National League Wild Card Series was, in most respects, the unfolding of a worst-case scenario for the Brewers.
In a game started by Corbin Burnes and featuring appearances by most of Milwaukee’s high-leverage relievers out of the bullpen, the Brewers fell to the Arizona Diamondbacks 6-3. The loss left Craig Counsell with little choice but to push his chips in for Game 2 and announce Freddy Peralta as his starter.
The Brewers entered the week riding high after a solid finish to the regular season. The opener was a chance to take charge of the series. They now face swift elimination with another loss on Wednesday.
Numerous factors are to blame for the series-opening defeat. Evan Longoria made multiple fantastic plays for Arizona at third base. The Brewers made uncharacteristic mistakes on the basepaths. Devin Williams battled his control in a strenuous ninth inning. However, two chief culprits stand out in light of the concerns the Brewers faced throughout the regular season.
It started with Burnes, who took the ball on the heels of an inconsistent season. Most pitchers would consider a 3.39 ERA in 32 starts a successful year, but for a three-time All-Star with an NL Cy Young Award to his name, it was a step back and a failure to live up to his capabilities.
Burnes’ stuff remained elite—he led all qualified starting pitchers in Stuff+ this year—yet he performed closer to a respectable middle-of-the-rotation starter than an ace. His 4.39 DRA (Deserved Run Average) and 4.02 SIERA (Skill Interactive ERA) were only a few ticks better than the MLB average. Burnes still had his share of dominant outings, but he also allowed four or more earned runs in nine starts. He had done so 12 times over his previous two seasons combined.
The struggles stemmed primarily from Burnes’ unwillingness to adjust his plan of attack. His heavy usage of his cutter, including his avoidance of flashing it in the upper third of the strike zone to change eye levels, made him predictable. Burnes made some minor tweaks to his pitch mix after the All-Star break, but not enough to adequately address those concerns.
Burnes’ inconsistency continued through the final two months of the regular season (four starts of four or more earned runs allowed) and remained a concern entering the postseason. Still, this was his chance to start with a clean slate and re-establish himself as the leader of the Brewers’ rotation. His importance became even more pronounced after news broke that Brandon Woodruff reinjured his shoulder and would miss the series, if not the entire postseason.
Instead of stepping up when the situation called for it, Burnes crumbled. Staked to an early 3-0 lead, he quickly relinquished it due to poor pitch sequencing and untimely mistakes.
After Corbin Carroll swung late on an elevated 94 mph cutter, Burnes turned to his upper-80s changeup with his next pitch. Not only did the six-mph decrease play perfectly into Carroll’s timing, but it became more hittable when Burnes left it knee-high over the middle of the plate. Carroll launched a two-run home run to make it a 3-2 game.
On the next pitch, Burnes attacked Ketel Marte with an inside cutter. He pitched Marte, who slugged .633 this year on pitches over the inner third of the plate, the same way in the first inning. Marte was anticipating a repeat sequence from Burnes and smacked a game-tying home run.
Burnes relinquished the lead in the fourth, hanging a 2-2 slider down the middle to Gabriel Moreno. The Diamondbacks’ third home run of the night made it 4-3.
Burnes was vulnerable for much of the season, and Tuesday night was no different. The Diamondbacks made him pay.
While Burnes squandered an early lead from his offense, they did nothing to pick him up against an unstable Arizona bullpen. The Brewers did not score after Tyrone Taylor’s two-run home run in the second inning.
Milwaukee was among baseball’s worst teams at scoring for much of the season, but they posted a respectable 107 wRC+ from August 18 through the end of the regular season. However, two concerning trends remained underneath that improved output: a high ground ball rate and an inability to drive the ball for extra-base hits. The Brewers’ reliance on stringing together singles left them vulnerable in a playoff environment.
The Brewers tallied 12 hits and four walks on Tuesday, yet they were held to three runs because they could not produce the game-changing hit. Taylor’s home run and a double by Willy Adames were Milwaukee’s lone extra-base hits. The latter could have been scored as a single with an advance on a throw. While Evan Longoria’s leaping snag on a Taylor line drive with the bases loaded in the fifth inning was an undeniably tough break for the Brewers, they had plenty of other opportunities to cash in but came up empty.
Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks hit three home runs and broke the game open against Williams in the ninth with a two-RBI double by Christian Walker.
Burnes’ struggles and the lack of thump in the lineup were real concerns for the Brewers as they entered the postseason, and both reared their heads immediately. In the blink of an eye, Milwaukee finds itself playing for its season.