3 things that must go right for the Brewers' playoffs chances to survive
That was ugly.
A 1-6 week for the Brewers was highlighted by two Josh Hader late-game collapses in Oakland, a trade deadline that brought back two Triple-A pitchers and a rental reliever in return for a 2018 All-Star and the team's third-ranked prospect, and a non-competitive series against the rival Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field where the Milwaukee bats totaled 35 strikeouts and just five runs for the weekend.
After hitting a season-high 10 games over .500 following a 14-inning win in Houston on June 9, the Brewers are just 18-27 since. Milwaukee ranks 23rd with a .738 OPS over these past 45 games; the pitching has been only marginally better in that span, posting a 4.97 staff ERA – good for 21st in baseball.
The Brewers' one saving grace, as they sit two games out of the second Wild Card spot in the National League, is that the rest of their competitors are similarly scuffling. None of the six teams within 2.5 games of an NL Wild Card are over .500 in their past 10 games.
That has allowed Milwaukee to stay in contact with Wild Card leaders – currently St. Louis and Washington/Philadelphia. But if the Brewers don't turn around the ship, say, this week in Pittsburgh, it only takes a couple of winning streaks from their NL counterparts to effectively end the Crew's campaign. Look no further than the American League, where the defending champion Red Sox were tied for the second Wild Card heading into Sunday, July 28 but after an eight-game losing streak paired with winning streaks for Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Oakland, now sit 6.5 games out of the playoffs with just single-digit playoff odds.
Even with a 162-game schedule, the season can still turn that quickly. The Brewers are dangerously close to falling off the same cliff that Boston just tipped over.
But it doesn't have to happen that way. Here are the three key areas as Milwaukee attempts one last-gasp playoff push.
Milwaukee does not have an easy remaining schedule, but it does provide opportunities to make up some games rather quickly, starting this week against the Pirates. Here is the Brewers' remaining August slate:
3 at Pittsburgh
3 vs. Texas
2 vs. Minnesota
3 at Washington
3 at St. Louis
3 vs. Arizona
3 vs. St. Louis
3 at Chicago Cubs
Pittsburgh is in free fall, having lost 18 of 22 games since the All-Star break, so even on the road, Milwaukee has to at least take two of three games. Texas is nominally in the AL Wild Card hunt, but if the Brewers are serious about a postseason push, then they need to win this series at Miller Park. Pittsburgh and Texas rank 24th and 25th in ERA, providing the Brewers' non-Christian Yelich bats with a chance to wake up from their collective slumber. Milwaukee needs to put together a 4-2 or 5-1 stretch over these six games.
Things get tough from there, as the schedule gods line up six straight series against playoff hopefuls for the Brewers. Minnesota is absolutely teeing off on opposing pitching right now, though Milwaukee does at least have one of its top arms, Chase Anderson, on track to start next week at home against the Twins. The Brewers also have off days after each of the next three series, meaning Counsell should have his full bullpen – for whatever that's worth – at his disposal against the Twins' bombers.
From there, the Brewers roll into the five series that will likely make or break their season. Simply put, Milwaukee needs to not get swept on the road and win the series at home. The Nationals are struggling without Max Scherzer, and it remains to be seen if he will return for the Brewers trip to DC. Milwaukee will likely miss Stephen Strasburg's turn in the rotation there, and though they will face Patrick Corbin, if Scherzer is still out, the Brewers will get two games against the very soft underbelly of the Nats' rotation.
If Milwaukee can go 4-2 against Pittsburgh and Texas, 1-1 against Minnesota, and 8-7 against the Nats, Cards, Diamondbacks, Cards, and Cubs, they will have stabled the ship heading into September. Anything better is gravy. Anything worse is an issue. Milwaukee's final month gets off to a rough start – six games against Houston and the Cubs, though they are at least all at home – but from there, the final 20 games are about as easy as the Brewers could hope for: four at Miami, three at St. Louis, four versus San Diego, three versus Pittsburgh, three at Cincinnati and three at Colorado. If Milwaukee can stay in contact with the Wild Card leaders over the next five weeks, that schedule should allow for a season ending run similar to the Brewers' hot streak last September.
Yelich has done his part since the Brewers slide began on June 10, posting a 1.016 OPS over his last 44 games.
Unfortunately, his formerly hot counterparts have cooled off significantly since then. Yasmani Grandal is hitting just .219. Mike Moustakas' power has evaporated with just six home runs. Lorenzo Cain has been in the witness protection program all year, providing no pop and little patience. Travis Shaw still can't get going. Keston Hiura and Ryan Braun have given Yelich a little support, but the Brewers offense will not survive if their second- and third-best hitters are a rookie and a 13-year veteran.
The Pirates and Rangers have struggled against left-handed hitters this season, and will toss out four righties in the six games against Milwaukee this week. This seems to be as good a time as any to see if Moose, Grandal and Shaw can get cooking with the bat again.
While there is some hope for a rejuvenated offense, an extended win streak is only possible with superior starting pitching, something the Brewers have had trouble cobbling together throughout the summer. Chase Anderson has put together a nice run – I kept all my Anderson stock even when it looked pretty dire in 2018 – and has not allowed more than two runs in any of his last eight starts. Part of that success is because Counsell has kept him on a tight leash, but it may be time to let him work a little deeper into games. He has not topped 94 pitches during this hot spell.
But Counsell has been forced to play roulette with the rest of the rotation. Jordan Lyles, Gio Gonzalez and Adrian Houser are capable of limiting an opposing offense, but they can also implode and very rarely survive past five innings. Davies alternates between stretches of dominance and a string of meltdowns. He is currently in the midst of the latter – and now he's headed to the IL for back spasms.
The Brewers' only hope is for the starters to be better. Counsell is hoping to build the bridge to Hader with Matt Albers and Drew Pomeranz, but that is not a viable strategy every night – and it's certainly not sustainable if they need to enter in the fifth inning. Milwaukee may have to ride its starters into the sixth or seventh innings when possible, even though it's not in the organization's DNA.
The Brewers are in a tough spot right now. There are no more moves to make, so they just need the current guys to play better. Can they? Yes. But can they do while the postseason is still in reach? We'll have that answer soon enough.
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