CINCINNATI -- The Milwaukee Brewers are the kings of September.
Now, can they keep this going in October?
Ryan Braun’s grand slam keyed a six-run first inning Wednesday and Eric Thames and Keston Hiura also homered in a 9-2 win over the Reds at Great American Ball Park to clinch a postseason berth for the second straight year, the third time this decade and the sixth time in 50 seasons since the franchise moved to Milwaukee. Don’t let the long balls fool you: Pitching powered the Brewers to this point.
For the second straight year, no team has thrown the baseball better down the stretch than Craig Counsell’s Brewers, who are squeezing the most from their 40-man roster. Last year, the Brewers led MLB with a 2.77 ERA in September and charged into the postseason with a 12-game winning streak that stretched all the way through Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
If this year has a similar feel, maybe it’s this: Milwaukee’s September ERA entering Wednesday was an MLB-best 2.77.
Jordan Lyles, the Brewers’ under-the-radar pickup at the Trade Deadline, helped lower it in the clincher with six quality innings. Last year, Lyles spent August and September in Milwaukee’s bullpen and mostly pitched in lopsided games. This year, a team that was in desperate need of pitching when he arrived, is 10-1 in his starts.
“The story in this whole thing,” Counsell said, “is just how well we’ve pitched. And we did it again tonight on the night we clinched a playoff spot.”
That, more than anything, explains how a team can tread water for five months, lose its best player 10 days into the sixth and final month, and still have a finishing kick. Christian Yelich was there Wednesday when the champagne started flowing, having flown into Cincinnati with owner Mark Attanasio to help celebrate the success he has only been able to watch since fouling a pitch off his right kneecap two weeks ago. Through Wednesday, the Brewers had won 17 of their last 19 games, 10 of 11 and six in a row.
And they still have plenty to play for. The Brewers are 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central standings, with a chance to gain another half-game Thursday while St. Louis is idle.
The Wild Card standings are just as unsettled. Milwaukee remained one game back of Washington after the Nationals rallied to beat the Phillies on Wednesday night. The top finisher in that race will host the NL Wild Card Game on Tuesday.
“Really, it was against all odds what we just accomplished,” Braun said. “It’s hard to articulate how unlikely what we just did was. But there’s still challenges that lie ahead. We celebrate tonight because getting into the postseason is an incredible accomplishment. But there’s still a chance we win the division. There’s still a chance we get home-field [advantage] for the Wild Card Game. So the focus quickly turns.”
Whatever their playoff position turns out to be, the Brewers are in because they are 19-4 since Counsell told Zach Davies 15 minutes before he left the clubhouse to warm up for an Aug. 31 start at Wrigley Field that Counsell intended to start managing like every day was a playoff game. September callups arrived the following morning and Milwaukee kept winning.
“We've asked for a lot of sacrifice,” Counsell said Wednesday afternoon, before Braun & Co. spotted Lyles a six-pack of runs before Lyles threw his first pitch. “We've asked for something that guys aren't accustomed to, something different. It doesn't always make sense right away, but if the group is strong, you have a better chance of that happening.
“The group is connected and strong and believes, so I think we can get that done.”
Said Lyles: “Being a significant part of what we’re doing here, it means a lot to me. I knew I could be someone like that to a team, and I got the chance this year and made the most of it.”
For the bulk of the year, the Brewers were almost impossibly average. They started by winning three of four against the Cardinals at Miller Park, then went 14-13 in April while Yelich raked, but their plan for a young starting rotation fell apart. They were 15-12 in May while 30-homer third baseman Travis Shaw’s slump surpassed the “slow start” stage, 13-13 in June when rookie Hiura was sent down and called up again, 12-13 in July when Josh Hader started giving up homers, and 12-14 in August when Opening Day starter Jhoulys Chacin and 2018 All-Star closer Jeremy Jeffress were released.
Along the way, the Brewers won about as many as they lost. In a 60-game stretch that spanned four different months starting with Game 80, they managed to go exactly 5-5 in six consecutive 10-game segments. Going into Game 140 on Sept. 6, Milwaukee was coming off a crushing loss in the opener of a four-game series at home against Chicago -- a 10-5 defeat in which Kyle Schwarber blasted a grand slam and the Brewers fell 7 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the division and five games behind the Cubs for the second NL Wild Card.
Their postseason odds were about six percent.
Two notable things happened at around that time. The first was Sept. 1, the date teams’ active rosters expand from a 25-man limit to include anyone on the 40-man roster. The Brewers took advantage of the opportunity. By the time they were done making callups, only two of the 40 were left out: Pitching prospect Trey Supak, who needs more Minor League seasoning, and utility man Tyler Saladino, who was down with a shoulder injury. So essentially, Milwaukee called up everyone.
The other notable occurrence was less conducive to winning. On Sept. 10 in Miami, during the first inning of Game 144, Yelich fouled a pitch off his right kneecap and suffered a fracture. He would not require surgery -- which is great news for next season -- but his 2019 season was over.
And yet the Brewers kept surging. Mike Moustakas hit two home runs in a win the day after Yelich went down. Braun hit a go-ahead homer the day after that while wearing Yelich’s jersey under his own. The winning streak ended at seven games, but then Milwaukee started a new one beginning with a series victory at St. Louis capped by Braun’s ninth-inning, two-out, two-strike, go-ahead grand slam. Yasmani Grandal became the first Brewer not named Prince Fielder to walk 100 times in a season. Trade Deadline pickup Drew Pomeranz and September callup Brent Suter -- recent Tommy John surgery be darned -- joined Hader in a lights-out bullpen trio. The Brewers surged past the collapsing Cubs into Wild Card position. Now, they will try to win the division.
“We all understand probabilities,” president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “We’re all looking at them just like everybody else is, so we knew that the odds were probably against us. We also knew we had a really talented team in here. The notion that we could go on a run like this was a possibility all along and we really believed it.”
“We never really cared what our odds were all year,” Yelich said. “We know what we were capable of as a team. We have a lot of talented players. The guys stepped up huge. We were able to string them together when it counted.”
Up next: October.
And while the roster will revert to 25, the number of travel days means opponents can expect Counsell to keep making the stroll from the dugout to the pitcher’s mound.
“You can’t keep any secrets with that stuff,” Counsell said. “We’re going to use a bunch of pitching. I actually think in a lot of ways, we’re better situated this year pitching-wise. I think we’re a little deeper pitching-wise this year.
“You can’t sneak up on people in the playoffs. You can’t surprise people. That’s not how you win. You have to win by beating them and playing good baseball, and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”