ST. LOUIS -- This was widely billed as a "rebuilding year" for the Brewers, and few, if any, gave them a chance to finish at .500 or better, let alone make a postseason run that would endure until the final week of the regular season.
And yet there were the Brewers on Saturday at Busch Stadium, with 85 victories in the bank and Craig Counsell managing for the postseason on the penultimate day of the season. That's where Milwaukee's run came to an end, with a six-run lead slipping away in a 7-6 loss to the Cardinals that handed the Rockies the final National League Wild Card spot.
"After the game, [Counsell] came in and said, 'Hey, this is a special group,'" said first baseman Eric Thames. "And it really is. I've never been on a team that had as much fun. At the beginning of the year, nobody cared. Nobody thought there was pressure on us to win the division. But we still played hard, we worked hard, we played together, and we came within one game of being in a postseason spot."
Some point along the way, that attitude changed.
"I feel like we gave [the NL Central-champion Cubs] a run for their money," Thames said. "We were like a bunch of pirates and hooligans. It was cool being a part of that, like, 'We don't care who you are, we'll just play the game.' Early on in the year, we knew we had a shot."
Thames helped fuel the Brewers' early-season rise to the top of the division, setting franchise records for April with 11 home runs and 28 runs scored in his return from three years in South Korea. On Opening Day, the Brewers overcame Junior Guerra's injury three innings into the season and subsequent slide, and Neftali Feliz losing his hold of the closer's spot and ultimately a roster spot, too, rising to a 5 1/2 game-lead over the Cubs by the All-Star break.
Ryan Braun never really got going, but Thames and third baseman Travis Shaw provided left-handed balance in the lineup, joining right fielder Domingo Santana as the first trio of Brewers teammates to top 30 home runs since Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie and Gorman Thomas did it for Harvey's Wallbangers in 1982. Jimmy Nelson emerged as an ace in his age-28 season before a shoulder injury ended his season, and Chase Anderson (2.74 ERA in 25 starts) and Zach Davies (17-9 with a 3.90 ERA) emerged as solid complements for the future.
After the break, pitching carried the Brewers while the offense scored the second-fewest runs per game in the Majors. All-Star closer Corey Knebel pitched 76 times, set up down the stretch by midseason import Anthony Swarzak and starting pitching prospect-turned-lefty weapon Josh Hader. The relief corps became even more vital in August as Matt Garza's innings were removed from the rotation, and in September when Nelson went down. Five times down the stretch, Counsell relied upon a series of relief arms to cover "bullpen games," including Saturday's must-win affair.
While the Cubs surged to a second straight division crown, the Brewers held on into the final weeks of September. A Brewers sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field from Sept. 8-10 started a stretch of nine victories in 11 games that lifted Milwaukee to within striking distance of both the division and Wild Card before the Cubs reasserted control in a four-game Miller Park matchup during the Brewers' final homestand.
The first three of those games went to a 10th inning, emblematic of a Brewers season full of close games. Wednesday's one-run defeat was the Brewers' 108th decided by three runs or fewer, most in the Major Leagues.
"We had a pretty good chance to do a lot better," said Santana, who joined the 30-homer club in Saturday's crushing loss to the Cardinals. "I'm just really glad that as a team we grew a lot this year. We believe in each other. We really connected from Day 1.
"I'm so glad that we proved a lot of people wrong from the start. I'm already really looking forward to next year."
Counsell used that word -- "connected" -- early and often in 2017. Being connected was the central message of his first meeting of the full squad in Spring Training, and he referenced it again on Saturday after elimination.
"This hurts, but, look, we were the last team eliminated," the manager said. "I think when you get this far, it hurts worse, but we want it to feel like that.
"When we get some perspective and understand that next year we come back a year older, a year smarter, a year having gone through this, a year after knowing how being connected as a team can lift you up, we'll be better for it."