The Brewers were in the worst stretch of their season in the middle of May, swept in two games at Kansas City barely a week after they were swept in four games at Philadelphia. The pitching was more than promising, but the bats were dormant and there already had been a season’s worth of injuries.
Starting pitcher Corbin Burnes preached patience. And what do you know? He was right.
“It's just the game of baseball,” Burnes said then. “You never point a finger or blame. The only thing you can do is go out and give the best you can when you're out there. We know it as a pitching staff: The defense and offense is all going to come around, and we'll be able to say we were able to come together during a rough stretch and pull through.”
Pull through they did, and the result is a fourth consecutive playoff berth and the earliest postseason and division clinches in franchise history. Here’s how the 2021 National League Central champion Brewers got here:
How they were built
• Amateur Draft: SP Corbin Burnes, SP Brandon Woodruff, RP Devin Williams, RP Brent Suter, SP/RP Aaron Ashby, OF Tyrone Taylor
• International signings: RP Miguel Sánchez
• Free agents: 2B Kolten Wong, OF Avisaíl García, OF Jackie Bradley Jr., SP Brett Anderson, RP Brad Boxberger, RP Jake Cousins, C Luke Maile, IF/OF Jace Peterson, IF Pablo Reyes
• Trades: SS Willy Adames, OF Christian Yelich, IF Eduardo Escobar, 1B Rowdy Tellez, OF Lorenzo Cain, RP Josh Hader, SP Freddy Peralta, C Omar Narváez, IF Luis Urías, C Manny Piña, SP Adrian Houser, SP Eric Lauer, RP Hunter Strickland, RP Jandel Gustave, RP Daniel Norris
• Waivers: 1B Daniel Vogelbach
Key acquisition: Willy Adames
The Brewers lost 13 of 17 games in one stretch of May that included getting swept in a four-game series at Philadelphia and in a two-game series at Kansas City. When they lost again at Cincinnati on May 21, starting pitcher Adrian Houser said: “We're just not really syncing up right now. But all it takes is one game for us to get going. One game, and I think that will happen here soon.”
Then Adames happened.
Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns made a surprise trade with the Rays for Adames on May 21 that came at a heavy cost: budding relievers J.P. Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen, who’d been pitching some important innings. Milwaukee had a need at shortstop because it traded Orlando Arcia to Atlanta in April and because Luis Urías was in the midst of a defensive funk.
Adames wasn’t hitting much with Tampa Bay, but the Brewers thought there was more there. He joined the team on May 22 in Cincinnati. Almost immediately, it was as if the Brew Crew had a personality transplant. They went 19-8 in June for their second-best winning percentage ever in that month (behind the 1982 World Series club) and rattled off 11 consecutive victories from June 22-July 3. It was the longest run for Milwaukee since 1987’s “Team Streak” began that season 13-0.
It was fitting, then, that Adames gave the Brewers the jolt they needed in the 8-4 division-clinching victory over the Mets in their final regular-season home game. After Francisco Lindor gave the Mets a quick 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, Adames answered with a two-run homer. Milwaukee never let the lead go.
“Willy’s been clutch for us all year,” said Kolten Wong. “I knew leading off, my whole goal was just to get on base for these guys. Willy and Yelich are starting to get hot at the right time, all our guys are starting to get healthy. We’ve just got to make sure we get healthy for this playoff push.”
Managerial decision: Six-man rotation
The Brewers knew they had talented starting pitchers, but there was no road map for how to use them over a 162-game regular season coming off the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Early on, club officials decided to build in extra rest, first via the off-days on the schedule and then by adding a sixth starter in Eric Lauer. It’s hard to argue with the results. Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are legitimate National League Cy Young Award contenders. Freddy Peralta was, too, before coming down with some minor shoulder irritation in mid-August that represented the only arm trouble for Milwaukee's starters so far. Houser has taken a big step forward, including throwing the Brewers’ first nine-inning complete-game shutout in seven years on Sept. 4 against the Cardinals. And Lauer has bounced back in a big way from a disappointing debut season with Milwaukee in 2020.
“This is about getting seven months' worth,” manager Craig Counsell said at the All-Star break. “And so that's been the focus since Day 1, is seven months of pitching. … There's not necessarily a known right answer, that we have a book to use to figure that out, but I think what we've done so far for the starters has helped them feel fresh every time they take the mound.”
Defining season stretch: 11 in a row
Not since “Team Streak” got off to a record-setting start in 1987 had a Brewers team gone on a run in the regular season like this one. It culminated July 3 in Pittsburgh, when Omar Narváez became the third Brewers catcher to tally five hits in a game, Right fielder Avisaíl García returned from a minor injury with four hits and five RBIs, and Jace “On Base” Peterson delivered two more hits and three RBIs as Milwaukee rolled to an 11th consecutive victory, 11-2, over the Pirates at PNC Park. Only two teams in Brewers history could claim a longer winning spree; the ’87 club and the 2018 Brewers, who won the final eight games of that regular season plus the first four games of the postseason.
“It’s not one or two or three guys. No, no,” García said. “It’s everybody.”
But, García added, “We cannot sit and be comfortable. We just have to keep winning.”
During that streak, the Brewers went from tied with the Cubs atop the NL Central to an eight-game lead over the Reds. The division lead never slipped below four games the rest of the way.
Breakout player: Jace Peterson
Seventh-inning specialist Brad Boxberger is in this conversation after coming to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee, and perhaps Urías after running into some early season roadblocks and emerging with 20-plus home runs. But where would the Brewers be without Peterson, the veteran who emerged as an on-base machine in 2021 while filling holes all over the diamond for a team that has had more than its share of injuries. Peterson had a chance to depart when he was designated for assignment by Milwaukee in May, but he opted to stick with an organization that is thankful he did.
“I think he’s a really dang good baseball player and I know people don’t talk about him, but those are the types of players you need on your team,” Woodruff said.
Calling card: Pitching
The Brewers of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in 2008 and ’11 -- and to some extent the ’18 division champs of Christian Yelich -- were known for hitting, but pitching charted the course in 2021. Burnes, Peralta and Woodruff all got off to sterling starts, as did Josh Hader out of the bullpen while converting his first 20 save opportunities.
In the early going, those performances were crucial, given the team’s incredible spate of injuries. Burnes was particularly electric, logging 58 strikeouts before he issued his first walk of the season, breaking all-time records for a starting pitcher (Adam Wainwright had the old mark at 35 strikeouts, no walks) and any pitcher (Kenley Jansen’s 51 strikeouts, no walks) along the way. It wouldn’t be Burnes’ last strikeout record; on Aug. 11 at Wrigley Field against the Cubs, he matched the American League/National League mark by striking out 10 consecutive hitters in one stretch of a 15-strikeout masterpiece. And on Sept. 11 at Cleveland, Burnes struck out 14 batters while combining with Hader on the Brewers’ second no-hitter ever.
“We’re talking about baseball history,” Counsell said. “We’re talking about rare air and special records. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Memorable moment: Daniel Vogelbach’s slam
How do you top a no-hitter for highlight of the year? By doing what Vogelbach did on Sept. 5 against the Cardinals, when he hit a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning to turn a 5-1 deficit into the unlikeliest of 6-5 wins. It gave the Brewers an 11-game division lead for the first time in franchise history, typified the “new hero every day” ethos of the team, and it happened in front of the home fans.
“It was a beautiful moment,” Counsell said, “and a great, incredible win.”
It has been a season full of those for the Brewers.