MILWAUKEE -- If any team wants to take control in the National League Central, now would be a good time to do so. The Cubs and Brewers picked the same time to play their worst baseball.
Mistakes bit the Brewers again on Friday, when relievers Junior Guerra and Jeremy Jeffress were each left lamenting costly walks and comebackers after the Pirates rallied for a run apiece in the final two innings to send Milwaukee to a 3-2 loss at Miller Park. It denied the Brewers a tie atop the division after the Cubs dropped their own game -- and this wasn’t the first time in recent weeks that could be said.
The Brewers have lost 11 of their last 16 games while the Cubs have lost 11 of 18. Chicago suffered a dual blow on Friday when Cole Hamels exited his start with a left oblique strain. Even the third-place Cardinals, who are three games back of the Cubs, have lost four straight games after falling in San Diego on Friday.
“I feel like every time they lose, we lose. And every time they win, we win,” said Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacin, who pitched five capable innings and was on track to log his first win since April 30 before Milwaukee's lead slipped away. “But it’s a close division. Everyone is right there. We don’t just focus on the Cubs; we have to be focused on ourselves. Just win games, and at the end, that’s when you focus on teams.”
It was the end of Friday’s game that made the difference. Each of the Pirates' runs in the final two innings started with a walk and scored on a fielder’s choice as Guerra and Jeffress tried for double plays the Brewers couldn’t get.
Here’s at case-by-case look at the three ground balls that turned the game:
1. Guerra’s misfire
The Brewers carried a 2-1 lead into the eighth inning when Guerra created traffic on the bases by walking Bryan Reynolds before Starling Marte singled to put runners at first and second. Josh Bell hit a chopper to Guerra that the right-hander fielded cleanly a few steps off the mound. But his throw to shortstop Tyler Saladino covering second was a one-hopper, forcing Saladino to rush his own one-hop throw on to first. Eric Thames made a deft scoop to make it close, but Bell was safe.
“I just watched the video on that one, just to see how close it was,” said Saladino, who had a particularly active night in the field after being recalled as part of Friday’s roster shakeup. “I can’t say for sure, but if I do make a good throw there, maybe we’ve got a shot to get him there.”
2. Pirates tie it
That left runners at second and third for Colin Moran, who pulled a grounder to the hole at second base. Another fresh callup, second baseman Keston Hiura, made a nice sliding stop, popped up and threw to Saladino covering the bag, but Bell was sliding hard and appeared to impact Saladino’s transfer. Reynolds scored the tying run.
“Keston’s ball, that’s just a great play to get it over there,” Saladino said. “You’re just wanting to secure that. [Bell] was right there on me.”
3. Jeffress tries for two
Jeffress took over a game tied at 2 in the ninth inning and walked Elias Diaz with one out before Jose Ozuna singled to put runners at the corners. Kevin Newman then hit a jam-shot comebacker to Jeffress, who, instead of throwing home for the sure out, fired to second base as Saladino rushed in to cover. The throw was off-target and Saladino had no chance to turn two, so the go-ahead run scored.
“I think we should go home on that one,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “There may have been a double play on a good turn and throw, but the safer play is the runner at third.”
Saladino looked at a series of camera angles, including one from up above on the Miller Park roof, to determine whether the Brewers could have had Newman with a perfect turn.
The conclusion was no.
“Newman’s hitting [and is a right-handed hitter], so I’m not on coverage for the comebacker,” said Saladino, “but being that it went that way, [Hiura] was following the ball. I was just waiting to see if [Jeffress] comes our way. Once it was going to bounce, I just wanted to try to get an out.
“We tried to play it out if that was a good throw. Even if it was right there to me, you clicked play and Newman was touching first. We looked at [the camera] above that covers the whole field and tried to play it out. He was getting down the line really well. I don’t think there would have been a play.”
With the lead, Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez completed a second scoreless inning to seal the Pirates’ ninth win in 12 games. The Brewers will need to win the next two days to win a series for the first time since sweeping the Pirates here at Miller Park from June 7-9.
“A lot of stuff is going against us,” Chacin said. “Like the last inning, a ground ball here. The inning before, a ground ball there. Little things that didn’t go our way. I feel like we’re close to getting back where we used to be.”