MILWAUKEE -- No team in the Majors has sent fewer baseballs over fences since the All-Star break than the Brewers, who instead hope to play as far as they can into the postseason with pitching and defense and the occasional big base hit.
But every now and again, they’re also capable of big pop.
Catcher William Contreras earned as much postgame praise for his work behind the plate as for what he did with a bat in hand, hammering a tying, three-run home run a Statcast-projected 456 feet with two outs in the fifth inning before Carlos Santana followed with a go-ahead shot for the first of his two home runs on the night. Those swings powered a come-from-behind, 5-3 win over the Nationals on Friday that pushed Milwaukee 19 games over .500 for the first time this season.
“[Contreras] can flat-out hit,” said Brewers starter Wade Miley. “He just took control of that game for us and put us back in it on both sides of the ball.”
- Games remaining (15): vs. WAS (2), at STL (4), at MIA (3), vs. STL (3), vs. CHC (3)
- Standings update: The Brewers (83-64) hold a 5 1/2-game lead over the Cubs (78-70) for first place in the NL Central. Milwaukee is the third-best division leader, meaning it would host a best-of-three NL Wild Card Series against the final Wild Card entrant starting on Oct. 3.
- Magic number: The Brewers' magic number over the Cubs to clinch the NL Central is 10.
Miley fell into a 3-0 deficit in the top of the first inning when the Nationals foiled Milwaukee’s game plan with a Lane Thomas home run followed by three sharp doubles. Between innings, Contreras, Miley and the rest of the braintrust “flip-flopped” the plan and gave Brewers hitters a chance to slug their way to a comeback.
It took five innings, but they finally broke through.
“There’s definitely a lot of people who don’t think we should be in first place because we’re not hitting and whatnot,” Contreras said, “but in the end we’re staying connected as a team, coming with pitching, coming with defense, coming with a little bit of everything.”
Before those homers, the Brewers had been stymied by Nationals right-hander Jake Irvin, who’d allowed only Brice Turang’s single through the first four innings, and had not allowed a single fly ball in the game until Contreras and Santana launched sinkers into the night sky.
They were the Brewers’ 51st and 52nd home runs since the All-Star break, and even after Santana added another solo home run in the eighth inning for his 299th career homer and 1,000th career RBI, it was still true that no team in the Majors has fewer second-half homers. The Braves, for comparison, lead the Majors with 114 home runs since the break as they chase baseball’s team home run record.
The Brewers have been a different kind of division leader, relying on run prevention and just enough run scoring. They have been good on both fronts of late, ranking first in runs allowed since the break (206) and 13th in runs scored (271), putting them in the top half of MLB.
It’s just that they’ve done it without hitting home runs.
With 15 regular-season games to go, there is a chance that this becomes the first non-shortened season since 2013 in which the Brewers have only one 20-home run hitter. That year, it was Carlos Gómez. This year, it is Gómez’s friend, Willy Adames, who currently leads the Brewers with 24 homers, followed by Christian Yelich (17, but only one since July 30) and Contreras (16). On Friday, Contreras made his homer count.
“We got a three-run homer, and those are huge plays in the game no matter when they happen,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Irvin was throwing the ball well, and then one swing later it’s a tie game.”
The Brewers acquired Contreras from the Braves and reliever Joel Payamps from the A’s as part of a three-team trade in December that cost Milwaukee speedy outfield prospect Esteury Ruiz. It’s difficult to imagine the deal paying bigger dividends for the Brewers than it has, with Payamps rising to a set-up role for closer Devin Williams -- who earned his 35th save on Friday -- and Contreras posting an .813 OPS while taking a leap forward on defense and game awareness.
Take Friday, for example. Besides flipping the script with Miley, who rebounded from his difficult first inning so well that he didn’t allow another hit until the sixth, Contreras helped Williams lock in following three misfires to open the ninth inning.
After a mound visit, Williams was his usual dominant self, and the Brewers were another win closer to taking the NL Central.
“We’ve seen him mature a bunch over the last month and a half, two months,” Miley said. “Obviously, the talent is there. But it’s tough coming to a new team and having to learn a whole staff. That’s not something that just happens in a couple of months. It takes time. You need to be able to catch guys good and bad to figure them out and get eyes on them. He’s been tremendous.”
Said Santana: “I think the team has their future catcher for a long time here.”