MILWAUKEE — There are still more than five weeks left in the regular season but time is running out for the Milwaukee Brewers to catch fire and return to the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
The Brewers avoided a three-game sweep with a rain-shortened 5-3 victory in St. Louis on Wednesday night. Milwaukee is four games behind the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central Division race and 3½ games behind the Cardinals for the second NL wild card spot.
Neither is an untenable situation, especially with 35 games to play — including 13 each against the Cardinals and the Cubs — but the lack of consistency the Brewers have shown doesn’t do much to suggest a surge is imminent.
“We’ve got to play better,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told reporters in St. Louis. “We’re not winning games at a good enough clip to think about the playoffs right now. That’s what has to change. What the standings look like — we’re still well within striking range, standings-wise. That’s really not a concern with this many games left. But we’ve got to play better. We’re (three) games above .500. That’s not good enough.”
Since pulling within 1½ games of first place with a five-game winning streak, Milwaukee has dropped six of its past nine games in large part because of a struggling offense that stranded 85 runners during that stretch. The Brewers have been shut out twice in the past nine games.
Milwaukee, which opens a three-game series against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night at Miller Park, is still waiting for outfielder Lorenzo Cain to revert to his 2018 form. Rookie Trent Grisham has filled in nicely atop the order despite a recent slump but Counsell is steadfast in his faith in Cain, whose .321 on-base percentage marks a career low.
“He’s going to play a big factor in this going down the stretch, and we need him,” Counsell said. “That’s the bottom line. We’ll do everything we can to get him on track, and I’m confident we will get him on track.”
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The pitching staff, meanwhile, has allowed a whopping 60 runs in the past nine games, including 18 home runs. Most notably, Milwaukee’s bullpen has allowed 28 of those runs, posting a 7.07 ERA during that stretch, the third-highest mark in the NL.
Relief pitching was the Brewers’ biggest strength last season and a major reason they came within a game of the World Series. But it has been a significantly different story in 2019 due to injuries and inconsistency to key relievers, including left-handed closer Josh Hader, who has struggled to keep the ball in the park.
Normally, president of baseball operations David Stearns would be scanning the waiver wire and working the phones looking to add last-minute help. But while there is still a slim chance of making a waiver claim before the month’s end, there will be no opportunity to swing a deal thanks to a rules change that left just one trade deadline in place this season.
So for all intents and purposes, the Brewers are who they are at this point and will need to look within if they have any hope of making another magical run over the final month.
“It’s been like that for awhile,” outfielder Ryan Braun said. “I would argue that once we got to August, once you get through the trade deadline, your team is your team. The guys you have are the guys you have.
“Obviously, we recognize the importance and significance of every game. We just haven’t put it together consistently enough to this point. Last year, we entered September down 5½ in our division and found a way to come back. We have the ability to go through a stretch of playing really good baseball. We just haven’t done it yet.”
On Friday night, Arizona's Merrill Kelly (9-12, 4.63 ERA) is scheduled to face Milwaukee's Jordan Lyles (7-8, 4.97 ERA).
The Brewers are 36-26 at home, while Arizona has gone 34-32 away from home.