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Jeff Gordon: Aggressive Brewers management outworks Cardinals' brass
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Jeff Gordon: Aggressive Brewers management outworks Cardinals' brass

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Milwaukee Brewers vs St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (left) holds up the ball to show he held on to it after tagging out Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Kolten Wong (right) as umpire Chris Guccione clinches his first to signal Wong out in the first inning during a game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Barring an unimaginable collapse, the Milwaukee Brewers will win the National League Central, reach postseason play for the fourth straight year, and reign as the division’s top franchise.

Did you see this coming back on May 29?

The Cardinals were 30-22 then with a half-game lead in the division. The Brewers were 27-25 on that date after finally clearing .500 with three straight victories.

Then the Brewers kept winning and the Cardinals did not. The Brewers kept upgrading their roster and the Cardinals did not.

Both teams have absorbed big injury hits. The Cardinals suffering the greatest pain while losing pitching ace Jack Flaherty for 2 ½ months, but former MVP Christian Yelich has been a shell of his former Brewers self while battling back problems.

But this division race was decided in the front offices, not the trainer’s room.

Brewers executives David Stearns and Matt Arnold outworked their rivals. They saw an opportunity to win the division and they went for it with owner Mark Attanasio’s support.

They kept seeking upgrades right up until the trade deadline. This effort has been overshadowed by the unexpected success of the San Francisco Giants, but it’s one of the best stories in Our National Pastime.

The small-market Brewers are not the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees. They can’t outspend their mistakes. Spotrac ranks their payroll 19th in the majors at about $97 million, roughly $70 million less than the Cardinals.

The Brewers aren’t the Chicago Cubs either. They didn’t travel the tank-and-rebuild route to prominence. They didn’t subject their fans to five straight losing seasons, as the Cubs did.

After finishing a distant fourth in the division 2015 and 2016, they rejoined the playoff chase in ‘17 and stayed there.

They benefited from three notable bailout trades. They gained catcher Manny Pina for reliever Francisco Rodriguez, Freddy Peralta for Adam Lind and reliever Josh Hader and starter Adrian Houser for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers.

But the Brewers haven’t been big spenders in free agency or in the international market. They splurged once in recent seasons, signing Lorenzo Cain for $80 million over five years in 2018.

They have made one major trade heist, grabbing Yelich from the Miami Marlins for a crate of cheese curds and a Gorman Thomas bobblehead. This was especially galling for the Cardinals overpaid the Marlins for their two-year rental of Marcell Ozuna.

The Brewers hit on starters Brandon Woodruff (11th round, 2014) and Corbin Burnes (fourth round, 2016) and relievers Brent Suter (31st round, 2012) and Devin Williams (second round, 2013) in the draft.

But they apparently missed on many hitters, including fifth overall 2016 pick Corey Ray and ninth overall 2017 pick Keston Hiura.

Their winning formula features high-end starting pitchers Woodruff, Burnes and Peralta operating atop their rotation and a deep bullpen for closing out games.

To support their hurlers, the Brewers improved their defense by signing two Gold Glove fielders: second baseman Kolten Wong (after the Cardinals didn’t pick up his option year) and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr.

As for the offense, well, there’s been much coming and going. Early on manager Craig Counsell struggled to coax consistency from his lineup.

On May 21, the Brewers were 21-23 and four games off the pace. They acquired shortstop Willy Adames from the Tampa Bay Rays for pitchers J.P. Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen.

With Adames serving as the catalyst, the Brewers went on a 17-4 run and seized control of the division race.

And their front office kept working.

With Hiura struggling, the Brewers acquired Rowdy Tellez from the Toronto Blue Jays on July 6. With Travis Shaw sidelined by his shoulder injury, they acquired third baseman Eduardo Escobar from the Arizona Diamondbacks on July 28.

Adames hit .297 through his first 74 games as a Brewer. Tellez hit .333 in his first 30 games while Escobar his .322 in his first 15 games.

Meanwhile the Cardinals never acquired outside offensive help in-season even though Matt Carpenter hit .116, .194 and .205 in the first three months of the season.

Also, fourth outfielders Justin Williams (.160 batting average) and Lane Thomas (.104) struggled and fill-ins Max Moroff (1-for-16) and John Nogowski (1-for-18) choked on their cups of coffee during the season’s first half.

After peaking at 30-22, the Cardinals lost 11 of the next 13 games to plunge back into the pack.

One calamity after another befell their starting rotation and John Mozeliak and Co. were slow to add experienced pitching reinforcements. Poor Johan Oviedo made 13 starts without earning a victory before settling back at the Triple-A level.

Internal offensive improvement finally came with the return of Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader from the injured list, but the loss of Dylan Carlson to an untimely wrist injury could expose depth issues.

So the Cardinals are relegated to the wild-card race until further notice while the Brewers finish what they’ve been building for months.

Jeff Gordon • 314-340-8175

@gordoszone on Twitter

jgordon@post-dispatch.com

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