MILWAUKEE — When the Chicago Cubs showed up at Miller Park on Labor Day, the Milwaukee Brewers were five games behind the Cubs in the National League Central Division race and sitting precariously atop a six-team scrum for the two NL wild card spots.
Manager Craig Counsell’s message to the team that day was simple: Don’t worry about the Cubs, don’t worry about the division race, just keep winning games.
After playing .500 baseball for the previous three months, the Brewers complied with their manager’s request, winning 15 of their next 21 games. By the time they came back to Miller Park on Friday for three games against Detroit to end the regular season, they were just one game behind the Cubs in the division and had already popped champagne corks after clinching a wild card playoff spot Wednesday in St. Louis. The only question was whether they could pass the Cubs on the final weekend.
So what was Counsell’s message to the team prior to the series opener against Detroit and shortly after the Cubs had beaten St. Louis in the opener of a three-game series in Chicago? Yep, you guessed it: Just keep winning games.
“The best scenario for us is to win to have a chance to make this a special weekend,” Counsell said before the game. “We’ve got to win games and we’ve probably got to win three games. So we’ll see how it works out. Our mindset is to take today and try to play a good baseball game and move on. The clichés are going to start, they’ve already started, but that’s where we’re at. As a team, that’s where you sit, you’ve got to take care of your own business. There’s no other way to think about it. I’d love to come up with something original for you, but this is what we can control.”
The Brewers took control again Friday, overcoming a 3-0 first-inning deficit for a 6-5 victory over the Tigers, a stripped-down, 96-loss team playing out the string.
Victories by Milwaukee and Chicago on Friday made the math simple. For the Brewers to win the division outright, they must win their final two games and the Cubs must lose theirs. For the Brewers to tie the Cubs in the division and force a one-game playoff Monday in Chicago, they have to win one more game than the Cubs do.
However you look at it, the Brewers have to keep winning games. Fortunately, they’ve become very good at it, winning 10 of their past 11 series and, with 93 wins, assuring themselves of the second-best record in the NL.
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Some of that has to do with talent, from MVP-to-be Christian Yelich and Mr. Clutch Ryan Braun all the way down to the deepest bench Milwaukee has ever had. Some has to do with Counsell’s often out-of-the-box but largely successful button-pushing. Mostly, though, it has to do with the Brewers’ approach, which hasn’t changed one bit from Labor Day until now.
“I think first and foremost we have to take care of our business and control what we can control,” Yelich said of the final weekend. “If we don’t go out there and we don’t play well, then it ends up not mattering anyway. ... I think the approach is the same as it’s been really for the entire month of September. We’ll take it one night at a time and focus on the present and let everything else around us play out.”
One way or another, that approach has ended with victories — 20 in the past 27 games, to be exact. The Brewers have been playing with consistency, energy and resiliency, even catching an occasional lucky break. They did all of the above again Friday night.
When the Tigers strung together five straight singles — not a one was a hard-hit ball — in the first inning to take a 3-0 lead against Zach Davies, it looked like that wild celebration in St. Louis on Wednesday night might have taken a toll on more than Bob Uecker’s clothes. But massive home runs by Yelich and Braun tied the game at 3 in the bottom of the inning, energizing the sellout crowd.
The Brewers built a 5-3 lead before Detroit prospect Dawel Lugo tied it up with his first major-league home run — off Josh Hader, no less — in the eighth inning. Once again, though, the Brewers had a quick answer as Braun hit an opposite-field home run that bounced off outfielder Nicholas Castellanos’ glove and rolled along the top of the fence before going out.
Go ahead and call it lucky because the ball probably wouldn’t have gone out had it not hit Castellanos’ glove. But every team gets lucky now and then. The good ones are in position to capitalize when it happens.
“I just love the energy that we have going on within the clubhouse,” Counsell said. “Our guys have really been up to the challenge of getting in the playoff mode. We’ve been in that mode for awhile now and there’s been no pushing them to get into it. They’ve entered it on their own and they understand it. That’s been a great sign from my end.”
Saturday promises to be more of the same — the exact same, actually — as the Cubs and Cardinals play during the day and the Brewers and Tigers play at night.
“It doesn’t change anything for us,” Counsell said. “Tomorrow’s a big game. We’ve got a chance to take it down to the last day of the season with a win, no matter what. So tomorrow’s a huge game.”
That’s no problem because the Brewers have been playing huge games for a month.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com.