On Sept. 5, the Milwaukee Brewers lost 10-5 to the Chicago Cubs in the first game of a four-game series in Milwaukee. They were 7½ games behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central with 23 games left and five games behind the Cubs for the second wild-card spot — tied with the New York Mets, with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Philadelphia Phillies ahead of them. Their playoff odds with 23 games remaining, according to Baseball-Reference.com: 3.1%.
Their odds of winning the division? Less than 0.1%. Not less than 1%. Less than one-tenth of 1%.
Here we are, 19 games later, and the Brewers not only have clinched a playoff spot — they did that by beating the Cincinnati Reds 9-2 on Wednesday — but they are just 1½ games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central. Miracle of miracles, after 17 wins in those 19 games, the Brewers now have their sights on a division title. What a story that would be.
Consider some of the most famous September comebacks in baseball history and where those teams stood with 23 games left:
1938 Cubs: 4 GB
1951 Giants: 5 GB
1964 Cardinals: 5 GB
1973 Mets: 5½ GB
1978 Yankees: 3 GB
1995 Mariners: 5½ GB
2007 Phillies: 5 GB (but 7 GB with 17 left!)
The Brewers have a chance at history — and those final three games of the Cubs series early in the month got everything going. Given the Cubs’ lead at the time in the wild-card race, it was the turning point in the season for both clubs.
In the Friday game, Christian Yelich hit a three-run home run off Cole Hamels in the third inning, and Zach Davies and three relievers combined for a three-hitter in a 7-1 victory. On Saturday, the Brewers won 3-2 as Yasmani Grandal tied it with a home run in the eighth and Yelich hit a two-out, walk-off double in the ninth. On Sunday, the Brewers scored five runs in the fourth off Jon Lester — Tyler Austin hit a three-run homer — on the way to an 8-5 victory.
Let the good times roll. Just like that, the Brewers were hot and the Cubs were reeling. Milwaukee went into Miami and swept a four-game series, although Yelich went down for the season in the first inning of the second game when a foul ball cracked his right kneecap. The Brewers lost 10-0 in St. Louis but won the next two games. They beat the San Diego Padres in three of four, swept three from the Pittsburgh Pirates and have now taken the first two from the Reds. The Brewers have scored 103 runs in going 17-2 (5.4 per game) and given up only 53 (2.79 per game). Through Sept. 5, the Brewers ranked 18th in the majors with a 4.65 ERA. Since Sept. 6, they rank first with a 2.54 ERA.
“We had another great September,” Lorenzo Cain said after the game. “Back-to-back years we had great Septembers. We’re back in the dance again and it’s find a way to get to the World Series and win it all.”
Yelich, the possible NL MVP until his injury, was on hand to celebrate. “Everybody stepped up. It’s a true sense of a team,” he said as teammates dumped champagne over his head. “We never really cared what our odds were all year, nobody cares about that. We know what we were capable of as a team. We have a lot of talented players and the guys stepped up huge and did a great job. We managed to string them together when it counted, like we did last year. It was somebody different every night.”
At one point, manager Craig Counsell took the floor and pointed around the entire clubhouse: “Take a look,” he said. “This is what a team looks like.”
— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) September 26, 2019
— Christian Yelich (@ChristianYelich) September 26, 2019
Can the Brewers catch the Cardinals? Do you believe in momentum? Ryan Braun said they still have their eyes on more wins — not just potential home field for the wild-card game against the Washington Nationals, but the division title.
The tricky issue: How many resources do you expend trying to avoid that wild-card game? Winning the division is huge, but the downfall of burning through Josh Hader and the rest of the bullpen is that you fight to get to a tiebreaker game on Monday, lose that, and then you have a fatigued pitching staff for Tuesday’s wild-card game — when it appears you’ll face Stephen Strasburg, with Max Scherzer potentially in relief.
The Brewers have one more game in Cincinnati on Thursday afternoon, then three in Colorado. The Cardinals are off Thursday and host the Cubs for their final three. The Cubs have lost eight in a row and figure to be playing with the emotional urgency of a sloth, but maybe they’ll show up to give their rivals some competition. The Rockies are bad and playing out the string. I’d call those matchups a toss-up.
The Brewers are lined up with Chase Anderson, Davies, Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser for their final four games. But, really, Counsell is almost managing every contest like a bullpen game these days. The expanded rosters allow him to pull his starters and go early and often to his pen. In September, a Brewers starting pitcher has gone more than 4⅓ innings only eight times in 23 games, more than five innings only three times (twice by Jordan Lyles) and never more than 6⅓.
The Cardinals, of course, are hoping for the best-case scenario: clinch before Sunday, so they don’t have to worry about using Flaherty and have him ready to go in Game 1 of the division series against the Braves. My guess is if they’re leading by one game on Sunday that they stick with Wainwright and hope to win. If they’re tied with the Brewers heading into Sunday? That might force their hand to go with Flaherty to try to win the division title or at least force a tiebreaker on Monday (if both teams win).
If the Brewers do get to a Monday tiebreaker? Lyles’ turn would be up, the guy they picked up from the Pirates at the deadline who has gone 7-1 with a 2.45 ERA since the trade — a deal that didn’t exactly rock the news wire at the time but proved to be maybe the biggest pickup of all at the trade deadline.
And if back on Sept. 5 you were told that Jordan Lyles would be in line to potentially start a game to give the Brewers a division title? No, you’re right: Nobody would have told you that.