Brewers on the ropes after pitching tested in G1 loss

Burnes goes four-plus innings with three homers allowed, setting up 'do-or-die game'

October 4th, 2023

MILWAUKEE -- So much changed so quickly for the Brewers. On Monday morning, they appeared from the outside to be healthy, rested and ready to attempt a long postseason run with arguably the deepest pitching in the field. 

By Tuesday night, the pitching was frayed and the Brewers’ season was on the brink.

Corbin Burnes saw an early three-run lead evaporate in a 6-3 loss to the D-backs in Game 1 of the National League Wild Card Series, stunning a sellout crowd of 40,892 at American Family Field who have grown accustomed to watching Burnes turn leads into victories over the past four years. In a best-of-three series, the Brewers find themselves one loss in either of the next two days from a fourth consecutive first-round exit in a five-year stretch.

“Look, in a three-game series, you lose Game 1, your back’s up against the wall,” manager Craig Counsell said. “You faced adversity, and we have to respond to it. It's as simple as that.”

Adversity is right. Burnes is spent for the series. Brandon Woodruff was lost to a shoulder injury on the eve of the series and might not pitch again in this postseason even if the Brewers advance. Meanwhile, the D-backs have NL Cy Young Award contender Zac Gallen on the mound opposite the Brewers’ Freddy Peralta for Game 2, then their co-ace, Merrill Kelly, ready if needed for a Game 3.

As Brewers third baseman Josh Donaldson put it, “We know we’ve got our hands full right now.”

“Gallen has had a great year. Kelly had a great year,” Burnes said. “But you still have to go out there and pitch and get outs. It doesn't really matter what you have done up to this point. You have to go out and perform.”

A loss in Game 1 was always within the realm of possibility. The D-backs are a good, young team led by NL Rookie of the Year Award frontrunner Corbin Carroll, whose two-run home run off Burnes in the second inning started a comeback that continued with Ketel Marte’s tying homer on the very next pitch, then catcher Gabriel Moreno’s go-ahead home run leading off the fourth. It marked the third time in 2023 that Burnes surrendered three or more home runs in an outing, something he didn’t do in 2020, ‘21 or ‘22. 

In his typically analytical way, Burnes examined each pitch. The Carroll homer was a quality changeup, but it went to the hitter’s hot zone. 

“That was the spark,” D-backs first baseman Christian Walker said. “It just kind of let everybody know, ‘Hey, we're in this.’”

Marte’s homer was on a cutter slightly elevated.

The Moreno homer, on a misplaced slider, was the pitch Burnes most wanted back. 

“The offense did a great job of coming out and swinging the bats and scoring runs early,” Burnes said. “I just did a poor job after that of executing pitches. That's really all it comes down to. 

“When I was executing pitches the first couple of innings, we got quick outs and a lot of ground balls, some strikeouts. Then when I stopped executing pitches, they didn't miss.”

After leading the Brewers in starts and innings with a 3.39 ERA during the regular season and recording 200 strikeouts for the third straight season, Burnes needed 92 pitches for 12 outs against Arizona. Burnes’ four-plus innings matched his shortest start of the year, and it meant all of the Brewers’ high-leverage relievers -- Abner Uribe, Elvis Peguero, Hoby Milner, Joel Payamps and Devin Williams -- were called into duty. Williams threw 31 pitches in a three-walk, two-run ninth inning that calls into question his availability for Game 2.

The real trouble for the Brewers is that they don’t have Woodruff and Peralta lined up behind Burnes. It will be up to Peralta and veteran left-hander Wade Miley to help keep Milwaukee’s season alive.

“I think it’s pretty simple. It’s a do-or-die game,” Williams said. “We need to come out and play our best game.”

It will also take more from the position players. Tyrone Taylor’s two-run home run in the second inning gave the Brewers a 3-0 lead before they’d made their fifth out, and they had double-digit hits by the fifth inning. But too few of those hits turned into runs.

In the third inning with the score tied and in the fifth while down a run, the Brewers loaded the bases, but Taylor couldn’t come through. The most painful of those missed opportunities was the latter, when Taylor hit a one-out line drive that appeared bound for the left-field grass. Arizona’s veteran third baseman, Evan Longoria, caught it with a dive and doubled up Willy Adames, who’d strayed too far from second base.

“It was disbelief,” Taylor said. “He’s been doing it since I was a little kid. I’ve watched that man do that, so I shouldn’t have been in that much disbelief.”

More suspect baserunning burned the Brewers in the sixth, when Longoria momentarily bobbled a bouncer as Christian Yelich made a turn around second. Initially, Yelich was called safe as he tried a swim move back to the bag. Upon review, he was out. 

“We caught a bad break,” Counsell said. “What are you going to do there?”

And the Adames out in the previous inning?

“Look, it's difficult,” Counsell said. “I think he probably read ‘over his head,’ and it was probably two inches from being over his head. Unfortunately, it cost us for sure. He made an aggressive read. It turned out to be the wrong one.”

It turned out to be that kind of night. Twelve hits, four walks and a hit batsman turned into three runs. The Brewers were 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

“I think there’s frustration on both sides,” Williams said. “We could’ve thrown it better. We could’ve hit better. There’s a lot of improvements that we can make before tomorrow.”