We made it, you guys.
The Brewers won their 50th game of the season this afternoon in gut-wrenching fashion, taking 2 of 3 from the Yankees and heading into the All Star break 5.5 games ahead of the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. It is just the fourth time in franchise history the Brewers have won 50 games ahead of the break, and one thing is for certain: I’m losing my mind.
It’s really difficult to put into words just how unexpected and incredible this season has been. Last March (2016, that is), I penned a season-opening article aimed at preparing the Brewers faithful for what I believed would be a lengthy three-four season wait before we would even sniff the postseason again. And while the Crew outperformed my expectations slightly last year, they were never really in contention and followed standard rebuilding protocol, trading away their high performers at the deadline and giving their young talent opportunities to cut their teeth at the major league level.
2017 was supposed to go the exact same way. None of this was supposed to happen. As someone who watches almost all of these games in an effort to string together a somewhat competent weekly article, I was preparing for an awful year. Rebuilding isn’t fun. Watching the scores and stats come in from the lower ranks of the minor league system to find some reason to stay optimistic despite being 10 games out of the Wild Card chase isn’t fun- it’s boring. It’s draining. It sucks.
So- safe to say I’m pretty jazzed up about where the Brewers are at right now. They’re 9 games over .500, 5.5 games ahead in the NL Central, and winners of 8 of their last 10 games heading into a very well deserved four days off. When they return to action Friday night at Miller Park against the Phillies, they’re going to do so with a lot more eyes on their games, both in the stands and from the national media. The question of whether or not the Brewers are going to “go for it” was pretty much answered this week: they are. They’re not going to mortgage the future and part ways with multiple top tier prospects, but it appears the Brewers are going to be buyers at the deadline and try to make a run.
So here we are- the NL Central is now officially the Brewer’s division to win or lose. Every game is going to become more and more significant as the days get shorter and the air gets colder. How are they going to do it? By doing these four things.
They’re going to have to play above .500 in August
The dog days of summer have not been kind to the Brewers over the last four years. You have to go back to 2012 to find a Brewers team that played above .500 during the month of August. From 2013 – 2016, the team went 48-64 in August, including a 13-14 effort in 2014 that included the start of a 1-13 stretch of games, costing them a shot at a postseason berth.
August is going to be a real litmus test for this team. They’re going to face five teams that are currently in the postseason hunt, with series against the Rays and Twins to start the month, a three game series in Colorado, and series against the Dodgers and Nationals (who own the two best records in the NL) to end the month. Those are some really really good teams that will give a Brewers a peek at what they’ll be dealing with should they make it to October. If the Crew can get through August winning more games than they lose, they’ll be in good shape heading into the home stretch.
They need to get (and stay) healthy
Ryan Braun left last night’s game limping after running to first base. Despite reports that the Brewers believe he will start on Friday, it’s concerning. Braun’s return has been one of the key drivers of the Brewer’s recent 8-2 run over ten games, and he HAS to stay healthy and on the field if the Brewers are going to make a run.
The oblique injury to Chase Anderson is also a huge concern. You just don’t know what to expect from Anderson when he returns in 3-5 weeks. Obliques are a funny injury- you can’t do a whole lot of rehab work outside of just sitting and waiting, so that’s just what Anderson and the Brewers will do: sit and wait. If Chase comes back healthy and picks up where he left off, I truly believe this team could find themselves in a pennant race. But if he comes back hesitant, or not at 100%, he’s going to be torn apart. Fortunately, the Brewers staff knows this, so they’re going to take their time with Anderson and his return.
Braun and Anderson are both critical pieces to this team. I don’t think the Brewers have enough depth, especially on their pitching staff, to sustain any additional long term injuries to key players. Unfortunately, none of this is really in the Brewers control- all they can do is cross their fingers and hope for the best. But the point I’m trying to make here is this: if the Brewers do end up playing October baseball, I’m willing to bet that it means Braun stayed healthy, Anderson returned to pitch at a high level, and there were no other lengthy stints on the DL for key members of this team.
They need to keep knocking the ball out of the park
I have NEVER been a fan of the over reliance on the long ball for baseball teams. In fact, I’ve written plenty of times about how staunchly against it I am, and how frustrated I’ve been in the past when the Brewers have built teams that counted on the home run to produce all their runs.
It’s not that my opinion on the subject has changed- it hasn’t, but if the Brewers are going to mash their way to October in a season they were predicted by many to lose 90+ games, then so be it. Every member of this lineup from top to bottom can hit the ball out of the park; every single one of them. And they all have- in big spots. Manny Pina (6 HRs) hit a big one on Mother’s Day to cap a comeback. Domingo Santana (15) and Stephen Vogt (4 in 2 weeks as a Brewer) have both hit go ahead dingers late in games that would eventually prove to be game winners. Eric Thames (23) ranks fourth in the NL in home runs, and hit the Brewers first walk off home run in two years a couple weeks back. Jesus Aguilar (9), in my favorite moment of the season to date, hit a go ahead grand slam Friday night to bust open the first game of the Yankees series. We all know Braun (10) and Travis Shaw (19) can hit them, and even Keon Broxton (14) and Hernan Perez (10) have joined in on the fun. All in all, the Brewers lead the NL with 136 home runs, just 7 shy of the Houston Astros (who, by the way, are a staggering 60-29 right now).
The Home Run is a double edged sword. On one end, it’s a tremendous benefit to have so many players capable of hitting the long ball because your team has the ability to score runs in bunches. Thus, as we’ve seen many times this season with the Brewers, they’re never really out of a game- especially when they go down early. But as the air gets colder, the ball is going to stop carrying as much, and the Brewers don’t have enough players hitting for average to manufacture runs the good ol’ fashion way. For this year, with this team, the Brewers are going to need to keep hitting the long ball if they’re going to keep winning at this pace.
They need to continue to stay resilient
The Brewers lost a game they should have won last night on a big stage at Yankee Stadium. Taking a two run lead into the bottom of the ninth, All Star closer Corey Knebel was unable to convert the save, giving up a three run walk-off home run after recording just one out. It was heartbreaking. So what did the Brewers do today, as they’ve done after all five of their brutal walk off losses this year? They won. Knebel converted a four out save despite being walking the first hitter he faced in the 9th, with just a two run lead.
The Brewers are 23-19 in games following a loss this year. That is a huge accomplishment, and it’s a testament to their mental toughness. It is also a trait that will serve this team well all the way into the postseason if the Crew can find a way to maintain a short memory following tough losses and avoid extended losing streaks. This is a young team and they’re playing loose, but that gets harder to do as these games get more significant. I give Craig Counsell all the credit in the world for getting this team this far- but he faces a tall task with such a young and inexperienced team.
The biggest challenge this team will face during the second half of the season will be learning how to win when the stakes are high. Staying resilient plays a critical role in the process. Can they do it? I think they can. Will they do it? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Isn’t this fun?
One final note…
I’m off next week! As is tradition, I will be enjoying an All Star break off from the Sunday Cycle next week, which happens to line up nicely with my bachelor party :). I’ll see you all in two weeks, when I’ll hopefully be breaking down the latest trade rumors and talking about a team that has extended their lead in the NL Central! GO BREWERS!