For much of the Milwaukee Brewers’ history — particularly the last 30 years — the arrival of September meant the attention of Wisconsin sports fans decisively and unapologetically shifted away from the diamond and north to the Green Bay gridiron.
Since 1989, the Brewers have registered just 10 winning seasons, and six of those have come in the last 10 years. They failed to make the playoffs between 1982 and 2007. Three years ago, in 2016, they finished 30-and-a-half games out of first. In 2015, they finished 32 games out of first.
Wisconsin’s status as a football state has been aided by a baseball team that has regularly been irrelevant — and highly ignorable — by the end of summer.
But sports fans who are currently preoccupied by what’s happening with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ lackluster offense (even as they sit at 3-0 heading into Thursday night’s game against 1-2 Philadelphia) should alter that habit and focus instead on the dramatic and fantastic fortunes of the Milwaukee baseball club.
Is it overwrought to cast them in that light? Consider the facts:
After turning in a winning season in 2017, the Brewers improved to a team that nearly made it to the World Series a year ago, largely thanks to the acquisition of outfielder Christian Yelich, who was voted the National League’s most valuable player. They did it by surging in September, going 19-7 in the month and overtaking the Chicago Cubs to claim the National League’s Central division.
This year’s Crew has been even more impressive in the final month of the season. On Sept. 1, Milwaukee was in third place in the Central, six games behind St. Louis and three behind Chicago. Through Sept. 9, they were 6-2. That was a hot pace, but they hadn’t moved in the standings at all. They were in the type of situation that would inspire charmless pessimists to utter phrases like, “Well, they’re not mathematically eliminated, but…”
Still, the games were thrilling. In a Sept. 7 win over the Cubs, Yelich reached base 5 times, stole 3 bases (becoming the 10th player in Major League history to reach 40 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a season) and won the game by hitting a walk-off double with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Three days later, his season was over.
In his first at bat on Tuesday, Sept. 10, in Miami, Yelich managed to hit a ball off of his knee cap, fracturing the bone. Up to that point in 2019, Yelich had been better, statistically, than he was in his MVP campaign of 2018, leading the majors with a 1.100 OPS (a stat combining on-base percentage and slugging percentage), compared to 1.000 a year ago. Brewers manager Craig Counsell was visibly emotional, but offered this prescient quote.
“We battled to a win (on Tuesday), and that’s what we’re going to have to do the rest of the year," Counsell said. "Just find ways to do it. Guys are going to have to step up. Guys are going to take on bigger roles. We've got a lot of guys doing good things right now, and that's how we're going to have to win games."
His guys won 13 of the next 15 games, including Wednesday’s 9-2 romp at Cincinnati that clinched a Wild Card spot. The guys who stepped up included Ryan Braun, who hit a first-inning grand slam Wednesday night, rookie second baseman Keston Hiura and a bullpen full of unrecognizable pitchers that Counsell has managed to turn into the envy of the majors.
The Cubs have helped out considerably by losing eight straight games, six of them at home in what once were known as the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field. The Cubs have the highest payroll in baseball at $211.5 million. The Brewers’ salaries total $127.9 million. Cubs manager Joe Maddon brings in $6 million a year compared to $1.5 million for Counsell.
These details are important in the retelling of this run to the playoffs. It’s not David vs. Goliath, but the 2019 Brewers story has lots of dramatic elements: a hero fell, they were counted out, a ragtag band pulled together to win glory.
And it’s not over.
With four games left on the schedule, Milwaukee sits just one-and-a-half games behind St. Louis in the division. The Cardinals finish up with three games against the Cubs while Milwaukee travels to Denver to play the 68-90 Colorado Rockies.
The race for the Central Division could come down to the final games of the season, played on Sunday afternoon. Thanks to their Thursday night game, the Packers are off.