Make no mistake: at 3:25PM this afternoon, for the first time since 2011, the Green Bay Packers were relegated to the iPad. On the big screen, meanwhile, the Milwaukee Brewers were closing out what may be a season defining sweep of the Chicago Cubs. The Brewers almost certainly needed to win all three games this weekend to stay relevant in the race for the NL Central, where they find themselves tied with St. Louis at just two games behind the Cubs. A win tomorrow would bring them within 1.5 games on the Cubs off day. The air is cooler, the days are getting shorter, and the Brewers are right in the thick of the race for October. This is what it’s all about.
The Brewers certainly didn’t do themselves any favors this week. They began the week by getting swept in Cincinnati by a club that has been irrelevant since June. As is the case in a lot of sports with young teams, the Brewers have played their worst baseball against their easiest opponents; since the All-Star break, the Brewers are 10-18 against opponents with a losing record, compared to their 15-9 clip against winning teams. The Crew is going to have to fix that if they want to make the postseason, as they have 12 games left against teams owning a losing record, and just seven left against the Cubs (4) and the Cardinals (3).
So there they were. Five games back in the division, and watching the Wild Card deficit grow by the day, thanks in part to the Dodgers sudden inability to win a single ball game vs. the Diamondbacks and the Rockies. A series win would have only netted the Brewers one game in the NL Central; it had to be a sweep.
Jimmy Nelson did his part Friday night, pitching lights out before exiting the game as a “precautionary measure” after he jammed his shoulder sliding back in to 1st base after nearly hitting a ball out of Wrigley Field. No worries, Nelson seemed fine, and he even tossed a scoreless inning after the injury was sustained before being pulled. The Brewers bullpen was handed the game in the sixth, and Josh Hader, Anthony Swarzek, and Corey Knebel took the shutout all the way to the finish line. Brewers win 2-0: four games back in the Central.
I was fired up Saturday morning. I joined several thousand other Brewers fans in running the Brewers mini-marathon, which afforded me the opportunity to finish the race on the warning track at Miller Park; that was a cool moment. But it wasn’t an hour after finishing my second complimentary Miller Lite when my phone blew up with the news: Jimmy Nelson, the ace of this pitching staff, out for the season.
What a blow.
What Jimmy has been able to do this season for the Brewers is nothing short of outstanding. It’s been the type of breakout year that you wait for with all of your top pitching prospects but sometimes never see. Nelson was 12-6 with a 3.49 ERA, and a 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio. He was 3-0 over his last 4 starts with just five total earned runs, and would have almost certainly been the pick to start the Wild Card game if the Brewers ended up in that scenario. It was a brutal blow to this team’s postseason chances, and yet they took the field just hours later and absolutely blew out the Cubs. Chase Anderson was great, but he didn’t really need to be- this game was over early. Brewers win 15-2: three games back in the Central.
Which brings us to game three. A loss for the Brewers means a four game deficit in the Central. A win cuts the deficit to just two. On a Sunday when the Brewers officially lost 80% of their NFL off-season viewership, Zach Davies went out and pitched a gem, allowing just one run over seven innings. Swarzak and Knebel did what they’ve been doing all year and closed out the 8th and 9th with very little fanfare. Brewers win 3-1; two games back in the Central.
I don’t really how to express how I’m feeling right now. For the first time in the four year history of the Sunday Cycle, the Brewers are in the playoff hunt with just three weeks to go in the regular season. They’ve been maddeningly streaky the entire season, but somehow they’re still here, in the mix in both the division and Wild Card races. It’s everything you hope and wait for as a fan of a small-market franchise. The MLB postseason is so unique- anyone can get hot and make a run to the World Series; you just have to get in. Will the Brewers do it? Only time will tell, but for a team that was supposed to be rebuilding, David Stearns sure has given us a lot to cheer for this year.
Suddenly, the goal of “keeping it interesting until football season” doesn’t seem like enough; this team has its eyes on keeping it interesting well into October.