Milwaukee eliminated from Wild Card race despite late rallies, walk-off win in 10th
MILWAUKEE — It was a spring of optimism. The lockout was over. The stands were full again. The Brewers, back with the best pitching staff they’d ever assembled, sought to build on 95 wins and an all-too-abrupt exit in the National League Division Series against the eventual World Series champion Braves.
They were off and running; when Milwaukee swept a doubleheader at Wrigley Field on Memorial Day, it marked the best 50-game start in franchise history.
What followed was a steady demise over the summer and fall that culminated on Monday night at American Family Field. The Brewers fought back from deficits in the ninth and 10th innings for a 6-5 walk-off win over the D-backs, only to be mathematically eliminated from postseason contention minutes later when the Phillies finished a 3-0 win over the Astros.
Philadelphia claimed the final NL Wild Card, and with that, MLB’s postseason field was set. For the first time since 2017, Milwaukee isn’t in it.
Brandon Woodruff finished his late-season surge with a quality start and Hunter Renfroe homered to start one comeback in the ninth inning before hitting a walk-off single to cap another rally in the 10th. It was one of the Brewers’ best wins. But the aftermath was also a microcosm of the year.
“It felt like for a large part of the season, it was just one step forward and one step back,” manager Craig Counsell said. “That’s what it felt like.”
Since their high point this season — they were 32-18 on Memorial Day — the Brewers (85-75) have since gone 53-57. They faded from the NL Central race and needed a miracle to win a Wild Card. Now, they have two more games to play before facing difficult decisions in the offseason.
“We put ourselves in this position,” said Christian Yelich, whose arrival in 2018 coincided with the longest run of postseason appearances in club history. “We didn’t play well down the stretch. I didn’t play well down the stretch. It’s tough. We don’t really have anyone else to blame but ourselves. …
“Fifty games is a good start, but that’s why being a playoff team is so hard. You have to do it wire to wire.”
Like the story of any 162-game season, it’s complicated.
The pitching wasn’t near as dominant as the year before, partly because every starter but reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes missed significant time on the injured list, some, like Freddy Peralta, for multiple stints. And partly because Brewers relievers combined for 15 blown saves after a much-dissected Trade Deadline, most in the Majors and including a pair of absolute crushers against the Marlins this past weekend when every game was critical.
The offense was an enigma. On one hand above average in baseball’s current run-scoring environment by virtue of a 103 wRC+ and 10th of MLB’s 30 teams in runs per game, but on the other hand more reliant on home runs than every team in baseball but the Yankees. Brewers hitters were more strikeout-prone than all but six teams and susceptible to long outages like the one they endured on this homestand when their backs were against the proverbial wall.
Milwaukee responded by scoring nine runs in 39 innings while losing three of four games over the weekend to Miami in the series that all but sealed their fate.
“Personally for me, I feel like each one of those playoff teams, we’ve kind of had an identity and a way to win,” Yelich said. “Like, we knew our formula to win the game. Meaning offensively, defensively, pitching-wise, we knew what we needed to do to win. We had a different formula every year, but for whatever reason, it felt like we didn’t really have that this year.”
Yes, the intangibles
What did the Brewers lose in the clubhouse when they cut loose veteran Lorenzo Cain with his .465 OPS in mid-June? And what was the impact of the collection of moves that were made and not made at the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline, when closer and three-time NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader was traded to San Diego, one of the teams Milwaukee wound up chasing down the stretch?
Brewers left-hander Eric Lauer said publicly what other players said privately, that the Hader trade, even if understandable from a business standpoint, “didn’t send us the right message.” Said Lauer two weeks later, “I’m not trying to just get a bunch of bites of the apple.”
“I mean, that’s going to be the easy story or the easy thing to point to,” Yelich said. “We’ve had to deal with those questions the last two months. Honestly, we’ll never know. We can speculate and say it was the reason, but at the beginning, I think everyone talked openly about how it was a shock to the room and caught everybody by surprise. That’s the truth, right?
“But at the same time, we got guys back. We had guys that have been really successful Major League players. So I think it’s an easy way out. You can kind of point your finger and say if we didn’t do [the trade], we would be in the playoffs, but I really don’t think that’s true. I think the guys remaining in this room, myself included, didn’t do a good enough job. We had opportunity after opportunity and we just couldn’t capitalize. It’s a tough feeling.”
This offseason could bring tough decisions
Burnes, Woodruff, Lauer, Adrian Houser and shortstop Willy Adames are all arbitration-eligible and will all be at the same point of contractual control at next year’s Trade Deadline as Hader was this year.
Might the Brewers entertain offers for some of those players this offseason to maximize the return? Ditto for Renfroe, who is entering his final year of club control and likely to get a raise from his $7.65 million salary.
“Who knows what’s going to happen this offseason,” Burnes said on the one-year anniversary of his combined no-hitter with Hader. “Who knows what’s going to happen at the next Trade Deadline. At this point, there’s a couple of guys remaining from our 2018 and ‘19 postseason teams, and it’s like, this could be maybe the last year. Maybe next year is the last year. Maybe we get two more years. We don’t really know.”
Woodruff struck a similar tone on Monday night.
“A lot of these guys, we’re kind of in that same service-time group, so a lot of these guys will be back,” he said. “It’s another year of knowing each other, being around each other, messing with each other. This last month, we had a lot of fun when we brought in some of the stuff like the ping-pong table. It just brought us together. Looking back now, I wish we would have started that a long time ago.”
The Brewers haven’t been to the World Series since 1982. They are still in a window to change that thanks to their excellent collection of pitchers, but the window closed a little more on Monday.
“Every organization will rue the opportunity when they don’t make the playoffs,” Counsell said. “It hurts. It stinks. That’s what it is. It doesn’t hurt us worse than anybody else. It’s no fun not making the playoffs when you have expectations to make the playoffs and you have a team to make the playoffs, and the people to get you deep into the playoffs.
“We stayed in the fight really well. We did. We stayed in the fight and I think tonight was an example of that.”