How they got here: Crew defies the numbers

September 28th, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- A lot will be made about how the Brewers made the postseason with a losing record, but to manager Craig Counsell, that is all washed away now that they are in.

“That’s been kind of washed away for a while because we’ve been in a playoff mode for a while,” he said Sunday, when the Brewers nabbed the National League’s No. 8 seed and a date with the Dodgers in a best-of-three Wild Card Series beginning Wednesday in Los Angeles. “It’s not about numbers or the season, it’s about winning games. We got ourselves a shot.

“You’ve got to beat a really good team [the Dodgers] twice. It’s the best team in baseball, but we’ve only got to beat them twice. And it’s very doable. We’re going to have to play really well, but it’s doable.”

To do it, the Brewers will need a winning record this week, something they never tasted during the regular season. Starting on Opening Day, they played with a chance to push above .500 nine times, and went 0-9 in those games. In series play, they were 6-10-3.

And yet, they are in the postseason for a third straight season. The Brewers had never done that before.

“This probably wasn’t the prettiest of the ways we’ve gotten in over the past three years, but hey, we got in,” said. “We got invited to the dance. All you can ask for is a chance. The Dodgers are a tough team. It’s not going to be an easy series by any means, but we’ll take a day or two to collect ourselves, try to get it together and see what we can do out in L.A.”

How they were built:

Amateur Draft: Ryan Braun, Corbin Burnes (IL), Keston Hiura, Drew Rasmussen, Brent Suter, Tyrone Taylor, Devin Williams, Brandon Woodruff

International signings: Orlando Arcia

Free agents: Brett Anderson, Avisaíl García, Jedd Gyorko, Ryon Healy, Josh Lindblom, Jace Peterson, Eric Sogard, Justin Topa

Trades: Ray Black, Alex Claudio, Ben Gamel (IL), Josh Hader, Adrian Houser, Corey Knebel, Omar Narváez, Jacob Nottingham, Manny Piña (IL), Freddy Peralta, Luis Urías, Christian Yelich

Waivers: Daniel Vogelbach, Eric Yardley

Key offseason acquisition: Jedd Gyorko

David Stearns has a high batting average as Brewers general manager and president of baseball operations, starting at the beginning of his tenure when he engineered a rebuild that bore fruit much more quickly than anyone anticipated. But the 2018-19 offseason was not among his best. Unwilling to commit to the length of contract – four years -- that both Yasmani Grandal got with the White Sox and Mike Moustakas got with the Reds, the Brewers instead signed a slew of veteran players to short-term deals with the idea of platooning all over the diamond. One by one, whether because of poor decisions or because 2020 was just hard on hitters all over baseball, those deals turned sour. Brock Holt was released after 30 at-bats. Justin Smoak was released with a minus-0.5 fWAR. Omar Narváez, brought in as an offensive-minded catcher, didn’t hit. Luis Urías, after a solid start, played at replacement level.

One of the bright spots was , who mashed left-handed pitching and finally provided some stability at first base late in the regular season. If you went into the season predicting that Gyorko would lead Brewers regulars in weighted runs created plus, step forward to collect your prize.

“Everything about this year is different, right?” Stearns said. “And this year, the constraints and the challenges were different. Look, a lot didn't go right for us this year. A lot of the moves I made last offseason didn't pan out the way I thought they were going to pan out. But our team, really, hung together, overcame that and now we get to play in our third postseason in a row on a national stage, and that's something to be really proud of."

Managerial decision: in center field

It was the first weekend in August that the Brewers took arguably their biggest loss of 2020, when Gold Glove center fielder opted not to play the remainder of 2020. Cain said he had been wavering for some time, and the spate of COVID-19 positives in the Cardinals’ traveling party, forcing the postponement of the entire Cards-Brewers opening series at Miller Park, was the final straw. The Brewers threw their full support behind Cain’s decision and discussed how to fill is considerable shoes, particularly in the field, where Cain was the captain of what the Brewers call their “run prevention unit.” Ben Gamel was one option, and he’d been one of the Brewers’ most impressive performers in Summer Camp. Or the Brewers could look outside the organization for a player on the waiver wire or a trade. But they went with García, who held his own in the field, even if he was no Gold Glover, and at the plate, where he didn’t hit for as much power as the Brewers had hoped, but did reach base at a respectable clip. Put together, García was the Brewers’ most valuable player by fWAR in 2020.

Defining season stretch: Sept. 14-20

On Sept. 13, the Brewers played arguably their worst game in 52 seasons as a franchise. They committed three errors and lost 12-0 while getting no hits for the fourth time in club history by the Cubs’ Alec Mills. The Brewers fell four games under .500 to match their low point of 2020. But the next day, Sept. 14, the Brewers beat the Cardinals in the opening game of a doubleheader to begin a stretch in which they won six of eight, capped by their only four-game winning streak all season, to get back to .500 and into the race heading into the final road trip.

“Hopefully we’re gone for a long time,” said , who homered twice in that final home game.

So far, so good.

Breakout player:

The numbers are rather silly. One hundred batters faced, 53 strikeouts, eight hits. One earned run in 27 innings, and none in his last 20 outings. A fastball that got up to 98.8 mph and a high-spin changeup sitting around 84 mph that isn’t like any other in the game. Williams is a right-handed reliever for the Brewers, but the changeup acts like a left-handed curveball, some say. Rob Friedman, otherwise known on Twitter as the esteemed @PitchingNinja, dubbed it “The Airbender.” Whatever one calls it, it’s one of the most devastating pitches in baseball; during the regular season, opponents went 2-for-62 with 41 strikeouts in at-bats against Williams that ended on a changeup.

Calling card: Pitching

These ain’t your 2008 Brewers, your '11 Brewers or even your '18-19 Brewers, who brought some balance into the postseason thanks to a potent offense with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the middle of the order for the earlier clubs, and Cain and Yelich joining Braun in the more recent years. The '20 club set a franchise record for the lowest team batting average in Brewers history -- .224 entering Sunday -- while also setting a dubious franchise record for strikeout rate. They hung around the fringes of the expanded playoff picture thanks to a pitching staff led by and at the front end of games, and Williams and at the back end. With Burnes on the 10-day injured list with an oblique injury, even more will be put on the shoulders of Milwaukee’s relief corps in the postseason.

Memorable moment: A “weird” clinch

It’s a moment nobody in a Brewers uniform will ever forget, the first of Milwaukee’s seven postseason clinchers that came on the same day as a loss. After the Brewers lost Sunday’s regular-season finale and the Cardinals celebrated on the field, the Brewers went into the visitors’ clubhouse and watched the final out of the Padres-Giants game. When the Giants lost on a dubious game-ending called strike, the Brewers’ celebration was on, and it spilled back onto the same field the Cardinals had just departed for a team photo.

“It’s definitely weird but I mean, it’s still great,” Hader said. “To get in the postseason is probably one of the best things you can do. We have expanded playoffs this year, so obviously that’s a little different, but just getting in the postseason is huge. It’s very hard to get into the postseason. For us to get our foot in the door, it’s all up to us now. We control our own destiny.”

Did Yelich think the last pitch of the Giants’ game was really a strike?

“One hundred percent,” he said, smiling.