MILWAUKEE — Almost from the moment he made contact with Minnesota pitcher Kyle Gibson’s 2-1 fastball in the first inning Wednesday at Miller Park, Lorenzo Cain knew what was coming.
Milwaukee had the bases loaded with one out and a chance to wipe out the Twins’ 2-1 lead. But Cain chopped the belt-high pitch to shortstop Jorge Polanco, who turned an inning-ending double play.
It’s been a familiar result this season for Cain, who slammed his helmet to the turf as he ran to first base.
“There’s a lot of frustration,” Cain said. “I haven’t been playing great at all this year. I feel good out there (physically) but I have nothing to show for it.”
Signed to a five-year, $80 million contract ahead of last season and moved into the leadoff spot for the first time in his career, Cain sparked the the Brewers’ offense a year ago. He hit .308 with a .395 on-base percentage, both career highs. He also had a career-best 30 stolen bases and 71 walks.
Cain, 33, went into spring training hoping to build on those numbers, knowing the powerful lineup behind him could only reach its potential if he was setting the table.
Instead, 2019 has been a non-stop frustration for Cain. Through 112 games, he is hitting just .248 with a .314 OBP and 14 stolen bases. He has struck out 85 times with just 40 walks in 497 plate appearances.
A thumb injury had been bothering him for much of the season and it seemed he was turning things around after receiving a cryogenic injection. Cain hit .270 with a .783 OPS coming out of the All-Star break but has fallen even deeper into a funk since the start of August, posting a .207 average and .530 OPS in 10 games.
Cain’s numbers are even worse with runners in scoring position. He came up empty in seven such at-bats in the two games against the Twins this week, and he is 6-for-31 with runners in scoring position this month.
“I’ve just been struggling,” Cain said. “I’m trying to figure something out because I’m playing some bad baseball right now.”
Cain’s track record as well as his superior defensive skills — his 1.9 defensive WAR is best among NL outfielders this season and his 20 defensive runs saved is second-best in the league — have earned him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making out the daily lineup. But he knows that might change as the Brewers hit the road for a three-game weekend series in Washington.
“I haven’t had a conversation with (manager) Craig (Counsell about sitting), but the best man should be out there and that hasn’t been me lately,” Cain said.
The Brewers wouldn’t have to look far for a replacement should Cain need a break. Rookie Trent Grisham has been raking since he was called up at the start of August.
Grisham, 22, is slashing .314/.350/.543 with two home runs — including a three-run shot Wednesday that proved to be the difference in Milwaukee’s 6-5 victory over the Twins. Grisham has looked more than capable in the leadoff spot.
“It feels nice to get the nod from (Counsell) leading off,” Grisham said. “I did it a lot in the minor leagues and I feel very comfortable doing it.”
The No. 15 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Grisham hadn’t hit better than .233 in his first three full professional seasons. But he hit 13 home runs with a .875 OPS in 63 games at Class AA Biloxi to start the season, good enough to earn a call-up to Class AAA San Antonio, where he had a slash line of .381/.471/.776 with 13 home runs and 1.247 OPS when he was promoted to the big leagues.
“Young players can provide sparks for teams and I think that’s what Trent has been doing,” Counsell said. “It takes the pressure off some other guys.”
Nobody could use a spark more than Cain, who doesn’t begrudge Grisham for being successful at a moment the Brewers desperately need it.
“Right now, he’s swinging the bat great,” Cain said. “We’ll see what happens. Hopefully things change on the road trip and if not, we’ll see what happens and go from there. Hopefully I can get it going.”