MILWAUKEE -- The National League Central was not going to be won or lost this week, no matter the outcome of the final regular-season series between the division’s top two teams.
But with Wednesday’s 4-1 win over the Reds, and back-to-back victories to start this series, Milwaukee has done its part to make Cincinnati’s path to the postseason look like a one-lane highway to an NL Wild Card spot.
“We feel like if we keep stacking up wins, then we’re going to be tough to run down,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “It’s a good start to another series we’re going to win, and a chance to put some real damage to it [on Thursday].”
The Brewers ended the night with a chance to sweep, after Wednesday’s win gave them a 9 1/2-game lead over the Reds -- matching Milwaukee’s largest such margin all season.
Brandon Woodruff worked the first six innings of a shutout bid that lasted until the ninth, while Avisaíl García drove in one run, scored another and made the night’s two signature defensive plays, including a home run-robbing catch in the eighth. Cincinnati does have a second path to the postseason via the race for the second NL Wild Card, which it leads by one game over the Padres. The Brewers, meanwhile, are a season-high 29 games over .500 and eyeing their second NL Central crown in four years.
"It's big. It's big. We need to win series,” García said. “We have a big responsibility, like I’ve said before. We’ve got to fight every game, every at-bat so we can win more games."
Woodruff, Milwaukee’s Opening Day starter who came into the start coming off a pair of wobbly outings, reached double-digit strikeouts for the first time in nearly three months with another solid outing against Cincinnati. He scattered four hits over six innings, walking nobody and striking out 10, his most since a 10-strikeout performance at Washington on May 30.
In three starts against the Reds this season, Woodruff’s ERA is 1.02. His ERA for the year stands at 2.38.
“I would say that Woodruff right there, that’s about as good of stuff as you’re going to have,” Reds manager David Bell said. “His fastball was dominant. To me, that was the game. That was the difference. It starts right there.”
It was something of a bounce-back effort for Woodruff, who was burned by two misplaced pitches while allowing a season-high six runs in his previous start in St. Louis. The outing before that, he needed 74 pitches to get through three innings against the Cubs.
“Tonight, I got back to having a clear mind,” Woodruff said. “Going out there and taking a breath, taking it a pitch at a time. I think when I’m able to do that, I’m able to stay more present for most of the night.”
Also present was García, who drove in the Brewers’ only run while Woodruff was on the mound and scored an insurance run on Jace Peterson’s double in the seventh as the Brewers battled against Luis Castillo, the Reds right-hander who always gives them trouble. But it was in the field where García made his biggest imprint on the outcome.
In the sixth inning, with Woodruff approaching the 100-pitch mark and reigning NL Player of the Week Tyler Naquin aboard after a one-out single, García ranged toward the right-field line for Nick Castellanos’ base hit and threw him out trying to hustle for a double. That gave Woodruff a chance to escape with the shutout intact if he could retire red-hot Joey Votto, whom he coaxed to fly out to left field.
“That play changed the game,” Counsell said. “Avi’s defense tonight changed the game, period. From offense to robbing a home run, it looks like, and making a great throw to change an inning completely. That was Avi’s best game of the year.”
The home run robbery came in the eighth, when García went back to the wall and made a leaping catch to pull back a fly ball off the bat of pinch-hitter Max Schrock. Instead of halving their 2-0 deficit, the Reds were on the way to a 1-2-3 inning against Brewers setup man Devin Williams, and the Brewers tacked on two insurance runs in the bottom of the inning as they continued to be tough on opposing bullpens.
“I think that was the difference in the game, some of the plays that they were able to make,” Schrock said.