ATLANTA -- Brewers hitters combined for 66 plate appearances in the first two games of the National League Division Series, and only one of those produced any runs. Without Rowdy Tellez’s two-run home run off Charlie Morton in the seventh inning of Game 1, Milwaukee could be down a pair of games in the best-of-five NLDS instead of knotted with Atlanta at one game apiece going into today’s Game 3 at Truist Park.
The problem is that this is not a new problem. The Brewers took a 14-game lead in the NL Central with 18 games to play when they swept a series at Cleveland from Sept. 10-12, by a combined score of 24-4. Twice in that three-game set, they scored double-digit runs.
Since that series, as they cruised to the division crown with a week to go, Milwaukee prioritized rest over the final week of the regular season, then waited four days before ramping back up for the NLDS. The Brewers have played a total of 20 games in that span and have recorded double-digit hits in one of them, and double-digit runs in none. Over those 20 games, the club is hitting .201 and slugging a collective .332.
The Brewers were not an offensive juggernaut in 2021, ranking 11th of 15 NL teams in OPS and seventh in runs per game, but that was plenty good enough to win 95 games with their elite pitching staff.
What is the key to getting the lineup going? Here are some ideas:
1. Get the top of the order going
It’s logical that as the leadoff hitter goes, the team goes, and that was certainly the case for the Brewers and Kolten Wong during the regular season. In victories, Wong slashed .327/.391/.548. In losses, he slashed .203/.263/.320.
So far in the NLDS, Wong is 1-for-8 with no walks and three strikeouts. But he’s embracing the responsibility that comes along with leading things off.
“I’ve been playing this game for a good amount of time so far and this is the first time I’m actually put in a position where I can be a spark plug. I can be that guy,” Wong said at the end of the regular season. “I take a lot of pride in that. I take a lot of respect from that point. I finally earned my way into that spot. I want to make sure these guys know and the fans know and everybody knows that when I step onto the [field], I’m ready to go.”
With right-hander Ian Anderson on the mound for the Braves in Game 3, Christian Yelich may also return to the top-third of the lineup after hitting fifth against lefty Max Fried in Game 2. Yelich has reached safely three times in his first eight plate appearances of the NLDS.
He’s still not hitting for power, however; Yelich has one home run since Aug. 21.
“I’ll say it until the last pitch is thrown: I want ‘Yeli’ up there,” Brewers hitting coach Andy Haines said after the team worked out at Truist Park on Sunday. “He’s got another gear. He does. I don’t know how to prove it, but we all know [Ryan] Braun had it; Yeli has it, [Lorenzo] Cain has it. They get paid all that money for a reason.”
2. Face a starter not named Morton or Fried
Give credit where credit is due. In Morton, the Brewers beat a pitcher who has a 3.34 ERA in 67 1/3 postseason innings, and in Fried, they were shut out by a pitcher with MLB’s best ERA since the All-Star break.
In Game 3, the Brewers draw Anderson, who didn’t debut in the Majors until Aug. 26, 2020, but he will already be making his fifth career postseason start. He had a 3.58 ERA during the regular season and, like Brewers starter Freddy Peralta, missed some time with a right shoulder injury.
“I never like to get in the habit of giving the other side too much credit,” Haines said. “However, trying to see it clearly is important. We go back and watch it after to make sure it’s not emotional. I said after Morton’s game that I’m not sure I’ve seen a right-hander not named [Jacob] deGrom pitch better than that. I just haven’t. And then Fried, it’s like, you knew he was coming in having a really good second half. He just didn’t make many mistakes. When we got into an advantage count, man, he made pitches.
“You have to tip your cap. I cringe doing it, but you have to. That’s why you say to beat premium pitching, your starter has to match them and then you have to get a big hit and capitalize on mistakes.”
3. Stop missing mistakes
Avisaíl García slugged .550 on fastballs in 2021, his highest slugging percentage on any pitch in any season of his career. In the eighth inning of Game 2, with two runners aboard, two outs and García representing the potential tying run, he got into a hitter’s count at 1-0 and then saw three consecutive fastballs from Braves reliever Tyler Matzek. All were in the middle of the strike zone between 96.5-96.8 mph. García fouled off all three pitches before striking out on a slider.
Tyrone Taylor had a similar at-bat earlier in the game. The Brewers just missed prime opportunities against Braves relievers in a 3-0 loss that evened the series.
“We gave ourselves a chance,” Yelich said. “That’s what you want in those situations when you’re chasing a few runs -- just give yourself a chance to tie it with one swing of the bat.”
The Brewers have seen all three of the Braves’ bullpen “dudes,” as Craig Counsell put it Sunday: Matzek, Luke Jackson and closer Will Smith. There are no secrets anymore with the proliferation of digital video, but those live at-bats should help the hitters as the series continues.
“You’re not going to get second and third chances when you miss a pitch to hit,” Haines said. “You can’t just miss, man. You can’t do that. It’s not the regular season where you’ve got a bunch in front of you. You have to capitalize on misses and we have to step up to do what we want to do.”