The previous time the Milwaukee Brewers enjoyed a day off, their playoff chances were slim.
The Brewers’ 71-67 record on Sept. 4 left them in third place in the National League Central, 6½ games behind first-place St. Louis and four games behind the Chicago Cubs for the second NL wild card spot — with two other teams standing in between.
On Monday, however, when Brewers players, coaches and fans woke up and checked their local newspapers, the standings told a significantly different story. Milwaukee, thanks to a stunning 15-3 run, began the day in a virtual tie for the NL’s top wild card spot with the Nationals and just three games behind the Cardinals with six games to play.
Washington won n Monday, while the Brewers were off, giving Washington a half-game lead for the top wild card.
It’s an impressive feat in its own right but even more so considering the Brewers made up most of that ground after losing Christian Yelich for the rest of the season with a fractured knee cap. Milwaukee also played much of that stretch without Mike Moustakas and Keston Hiura, who were recovering from wrist and hamstring issues, respectively. In addition, Lorenzo Cain (knee) and Ryan Braun (back) were at less than full strength.
“We’re winning games and we’re playing good baseball,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We’re getting contributions from a lot of guys and that’s how you have to win games.”
There has been no shortage of players rising during this run. Cory Spangenberg stepped up. So, too, did Tyler Austin, while Travis Shaw overcame his season-long funk to draw a pair of rally-sustaining walks over the weekend, all badly-needed contributions as the team overcame the loss of its MVP and the other injuries.
On Sunday, Eric Thames and Orlando Arcia delivered the big blows after having relatively quiet homestands.
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“I think we’ve done a good job of coming together around everybody’s injuries,” Braun said. “As good as Christian is, you’re not going to be able to replace him with any one player. It’s a matter of everybody being able to step up, do their small part and do their job to the best of their ability to compensate for the loss of him.”
But the most impressive performance so far has come from the pitching staff, which has combined to post an MLB-leading 2.81 ERA in September. Brewers pitchers have allowed just 59 earned runs this month — the fewest of any team in baseball — while holding opposing hitters to a .202 batting average.
“We’ve pitched really well and that’s been the biggest thing in this stretch,” Counsell said. “You lose Yeli and say the position players have to step up but, really, our pitching has stepped up. We’ve pitched exceptionally well and that’s been a lot of different guys.”
Brent Suter’s return a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery might have been the biggest boost for the pitching staff. In seven relief appearances, Suter is 3-0 with a 0.63 ERA. He has allowed just one earned run in 14⅓ innings with 11 strikeouts and no walks.
With Suter back, the Brewers didn’t have to rush All-Star Brandon Woodruff’s recovery from a strained oblique. Woodruff has made two appearances since his return and while he’s pitched only two innings in each of his appearances, Counsell has had the luxury of having a full complement of arms waiting in the wings.
“Teams are going to go through their ups and downs and it’s all about getting hot at the right time,” Woodruff said. “I think we’re doing a good job of that right now and the main thing is just trying to keep it going.”
Another division title is still within reach, but the most likely scenario has the Brewers making the postseason as a wild card entry. Milwaukee’s magic number is three — any combination of three wins and Cubs losses clinches a postseason berth — but even with a favorable schedule over the final week, challenges loom. Milwaukee will close the regular season with three-game series at Cincinnati and Colorado.
“We certainly aren’t taking anything for granted,” Braun said. “Cincinnati’s pitching staff up there with anybody in baseball right now, and Colorado is an extremely challenging environment for pitching in general so we expect two tough series.
“The goal is just to continue to play the same way we’ve been playing, approach every game like a must-win and do the things we’ve been doing. But certainly we know we have our hands full coming up here.”