The Brewers were finally able to put an end to their brutal post All-Star break skid this week, winning two games in each of their critical series against the St. Louis Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays. The Cubs, meanwhile, came back down to earth against two playoff teams and lost four of six, dropping their lead over the Crew in the NL Central to just a half a game. Here’s my key takeaways from the past week of baseball.
The August 1st trade deadline was putting undue pressure on this team.
Call it a hunch, but I genuinely believe that the non-waiver trade deadline was putting a ton of pressure on the Brewers to perform. There was so much hype surrounding this team after the All Star break, and it came seemingly out of nowhere. Nobody was paying much attention to the Crew on a national level until they took two of three in New York before the break. After that, it was like every major baseball writer in the nation was leaking rumors about how the Brewers were “abandoning the rebuild” and were getting aggressive in their trade talks. Once the Brewers started losing their 5.5 game lead, the tone of that chatter changed. Suddenly it was all about how the Brewers front office was going to make a huge mistake by going “all in” on this year for a team that was slowly fading out of first place. You can say that the players don’t hear the chatter, but I don’t buy it. The entire team was pressing- every tight game felt like “the most important game of the year” and every late inning relief situation felt like game seven of the World Series.
Based solely on gut feel and my reaction to watching the majority of these games, the Brewers seemed to be more comfortable this week. While they’ve still got some work to do offensively (see below), I felt like the entire pitching staff was able to navigate stressful situations much more effectively than in the prior month. The demeanor in the dugout, at least in the limited amount of time they showed the guys on television, seemed to be a lot more relaxed. Now that the Brewers don’t have to listen to all the trade deadline chatter, they can go back to focusing on playing baseball and trying to win games.
The Brewers have a real issue at 2nd base.
One of the rumors that surfaced in mid-July was that the Brewers were interested in 2nd baseman Ian Kinsler of the Detroit Tigers, who at the time was hitting somewhere between .220-.230 (if memory serves). When I first heard those rumors, I didn’t give them any thought, as we were anxiously awaiting the return of the red hot Eric Sogard and I was still holding out a glimmer of hope that Jonathan Villar would turn it around. Welp, Sogard has struggled mightily since coming off the DL- he’s just 3 for his last 36 at the plate. He has also had just three walks, which is concerning; it was his patience at the plate that made him so lethal prior to his ankle injury. Meanwhile, Jonathan Villar just looks lost at the plate. He’s swinging early, missing by a mile, and clearly guessing at pitches before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. With a .216 average and a .276 OBP, Craig Counsell doesn’t really have a choice but to bury Villar on the bench and hope Sogard can work his way through his slump. Meanwhile, Ian Kinsler has upped his average to .242, but he’s got an OBP of .322 and has struck out just 50 times this season, compared to Villar’s 111. In hindsight, that trade might not have been so bad after all.
This Brewer’s team is the polar opposite of the team they were in April and May.
First of all, I give credit to GM David Stearns for both his trade deadline transactions and the timing of the decisions he made regarding his pitching prospects, and how he phased them into their current roles on this team. Suddenly this bullpen, which ranked among the worst in all of baseball, doesn’t look so bad with the likes of Josh Hader, Anthony Swarzak, and Corey Knebel. As for the starting rotation, the Brewers could not have gotten a better week from their rotation from top to bottom, as the starters allowed just nine runs in six games, including a 22 consecutive shutout inning streak. Remember Chase Anderson? The de facto ace of this rotation prior to his oblique injury? He’s scheduled to return to the rotation sometime in the next 2-3 weeks. If the Brewers are still within striking distance of the Cubs when he returns, watch out.
These pitchers are putting up solid numbers despite being put under incredible pressure to produce by their offense, which has seemingly disappeared. The Brewers just cannot seem to bust out of their collective slump at the plate, which is now going on three full weeks since the All Star break. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch, considering that this team ranked among the top teams in the NL in every major hitting category at the midway mark of the season. As a fan, I don’t know whether or not to be encouraged that the Brewers have found a way to stay close to the Cubs despite a near complete lack of offense, or concerned that the Brewers may be pressing so hard at the plate that they’re falling into bad habits.
The pitching is only going to get better over the next two months. Meanwhile, the air is going to get cooler, the wind is going to pick up, and the ball is going to become harder to hit as October approaches; it’s just simple science. If the Brewers are going to make a run at the postseason, the bats need to wake up soon. Too much pressure on a pitching staff wears on a team, and can lead to some pretty ugly losing streaks. This was always my concern with this team- that their over reliance on the long ball was going to hurt them when the dog days of August rolled around. Let’s hope they can prove me wrong and turn it around in the coming week; if they can do it, they’re going to stay relevant long after the start of football season, which makes for an exciting September!