'We got it done': Crew's clinch of NL Central a crazy affair

Milwaukee secures third division crown in six seasons after bizarre finish to Cubs-Braves

September 27th, 2023

MILWAUKEE -- True, this is not the way the Brewers envisioned clinching the National League Central title. They popped champagne in the clubhouse and then piled onto the pitching mound at American Family Field for a team photo in the wake of a 4-1 loss to the Cardinals that marked a third straight defeat when all the situation required was one more victory. 

Then again, the circumstances made it a clinch no one will forget. 

The Brewers secured the sixth division title in franchise history and their third in the past six seasons with an assist from the baseball gods. How else to explain Cubs right fielder Seiya Suzuki dropping the most routine of fly balls in the bottom of the eighth inning at Truist Park in Atlanta, where the Braves completed a comeback from six runs down for a 7-6 win to hand Chicago the loss Milwaukee needed? 

“In the ninth inning,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, “[Brewers equipment manager] Jason Shawger started running around like a madman. I knew something was up.”

  • Games remaining (5): vs. STL (2), vs. CHC (3)
  • Standings update: The Brewers (88-69) won the NL Central and are locked in as the NL’s No. 3 seed, meaning they will host a best-of-three NL Wild Card Series against the final NL Wild Card entrant starting on Oct. 3 at American Family Field. Tickets are on sale now.

After Milwaukee tastefully marked the occasion of a postseason berth on Friday night with a champagne toast, it was time for a more raucous party.

The Brewers are 2023 NL Central champions.

“We’ve played well on all fronts,” said Corbin Burnes, who is lined up as Milwaukee’s Game 1 starter in the Wild Card Series starting on Oct. 3. “We realize as a team what we can do.”

Devin Williams and the rest of the Brewers’ relief corps were watching a feed of the Cubs-Braves game on an iPad in the bullpen. They knew the score had flipped in Atlanta’s favor before any of their teammates on the field.

So did Burnes, who was in the clubhouse as staffers hurriedly prepared the room for a celebratory mess. In the seats next to the dugout, Debbie Attanasio, the wife of Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio, was following the MLB Gameday feed on her phone and saw the magic words: “In play, runs.”

“Like I told you before, we wanted to win to celebrate,” Brewers shortstop Willy Adames said, cigar in hand. “But I guess we’re going to celebrate anyway.”

“However it happened,” Burnes said, “they lost, and we won the division.”

“We got it done,” Williams said. “We got enough wins and the division is ours.”

Sal Frelick was batting in the bottom of the ninth inning when a crowd of 36,755 began to stir. When he heard them unite into the Atlanta chop, rarely heard in a city where the Milwaukee Braves’ departure still stings for longtime baseball fans, Frelick had a hunch something big had happened.

And moments later, as the Cardinals celebrated their victory with a handshake line, Brewers players scurried into the clubhouse just in time to catch the final out of the Cubs game.

“It was a quick turn,” Milwaukee outfielder Christian Yelich said. “You go from being bummed that you couldn’t do it on your own with a win, to a lot of excitement and champagne.”

“Things changed really fast in about four minutes,” Counsell said.

Perhaps it will be a weight off everyone’s shoulders.

“I think we learned a lot about our team the past three games when it was a one-game decider,” Frelick said. “I don’t think we played as loose. Myself, personally, I wasn’t having as much fun. There was a lot of pressure. I just think it was such a good learning experience heading into the playoffs when every game is going to be like that.

“We’re going to have a blast tonight and then have a blast the rest of the way.”

The Brewers will enter the postseason as the No. 3 seed and will host a best-of-three Wild Card Series at American Family Field from Oct. 3-5 against an opponent to be determined. The D-backs, Cubs, Marlins and Reds are all in contention.

If the Brewers can get past that round, the Dodgers would be waiting in the NL Division Series. Twice Milwaukee has met Los Angeles in the postseason during this stretch of five playoff appearances in six years, and twice the Dodgers have prevailed.

The difference this year is that the Brewers have their “Big Three” starters -- Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta -- lined up just the way they want for what they hope is a deep postseason run.

The weekend troubles of Woodruff (five innings, six hits, four runs allowed on Saturday) and Peralta (three innings, nine hits, four runs allowed on Sunday) notwithstanding, that is a formidable task for any opponent.

“When the postseason starts, anything can happen, whether you’re the favorite or the underdog. It doesn’t really matter at that point,” said Yelich, the only position player who’s been part of all five playoff teams under Counsell. “It’s who gets hot at the right time, who plays the best baseball.

“You never know what can happen.”

For the Brewers, what happened is they played their best baseball when it mattered most. They scored three total runs while getting swept in three games at Dodger Stadium from Aug. 15-17, then rattled off nine wins in a row and never looked back.

Even with those three straight losses, Milwaukee is 23-12 since then. That’s the best record in the NL.

“It’s just a fact that we got swept in Los Angeles, and [Counsell] had the only clubhouse meeting of the year,” Attanasio said. “Whatever he said, we went on a run.”

The run prevention was stout throughout, with the Brewers leading the NL in both ERA and defensive runs saved. The difference since the Dodgers series has been the offense, bolstered at the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline by veterans Mark Canha and Carlos Santana, and infused with a new sense of what rookie outfielder Frelick described as peskiness.

The Brewers don’t slug as much as some of their previous postseason teams -- they rank 23rd in the Majors in home runs -- but they have become proficient at putting together big innings, none bigger than the 12-run second inning in Friday’s postseason clincher against the Marlins.

In 13 of its 24 games this month, Milwaukee has scored at least four runs in an inning.

Credit the front office -- led by GM Matt Arnold in his first season at the top of the Brewers’ baseball operations department -- for those additions to the roster, and to Counsell for making the pieces fit.

“This is a special clubhouse,” Attanasio said. “We had an especially tight group in 2008, in 2018 and now, and that’s not taking anything away from any of the other teams. This clubhouse has a chemistry that is special.”

Now, the Brewers can relax after three angst-filled games. Asked what he would say to fans who were getting nervous as the team kept losing and the Cubs kept winning, Williams smiled.

“I was right there in the boat with them,” he said.

Yelich was smiling, too.

“You know what? It’s hard to win a game in the Major Leagues,” Yelich said. “That’s why these division titles and playoff appearances are so special. A lot of things have to go right. A lot of guys have to play well all year.

“It’s an amazing accomplishment every time you get in, because it means you have a chance.”