Since losing three in a row from June 4-6, the Los Angeles Dodgers have lost back-to-back games only three times. The've lost their [ast two games against a good Arizona team, they dropped two in a row on July 20-21 against Atlanta -- to which they responded by winning nine in a row, and 13 of 14 -- but maybe most surprsingly, they lost two straight during Players Weekend at Dodgers Stadium in a fierce matchup against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Dodgers have lost 12 games since the end of June. Two of them were Saturday and Sunday, against the pesky Brew Crew.
But we're not here for another article about the Dodgers: There are hundreds of those. We're here to talk about the Brewers.
In our annual Tortured Fanbase Rankings last year, the Brewers finished sixth, after being fourth the year before. The Brewers are maybe the most under-the-radar pained fanbase in all of sports. They have:
- Only reached the playoffs twice in the last 35 years, winning one playoff series in that time.
- Watched a farm system a decade ago that produced, all in their prime at the exact same time, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and Yovani Gallardo and looked ready for their best chance to finally reach their second World Series … but ran into a buzzsaw of a (mostly otherwise inferior) Cardinals team in 2011 that ruined their last, best chance.
- Only reached the World Series once, in 1982, with a classic all-timer team (Harvey's Wallbangers are one of those historic, lovable everything-but-a-title teams) that lost in seven games to that same Cardinals team, now a division rival.
- Two beloved Hall of Famers in Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, both of whom were on that '82 team.
- The most cherished and treasured announcer in all of baseball right now, Bob Uecker, who not only is a legendary baseball character (and the subject of many wonderful Norm MacDonald jokes), but also, lest you forget, a former sitcom star:
- A devout, fervid following that regularly has more than 2.5 million people attend games a year and generally passes 3 million when they're contenders.
The Brewers are a team that all of baseball should cheer for: The game is better when they are relevant. But over the past 30-plus years, they have barely been relevant, and when they have, they've had their hearts broken.
Which is one of the reasons that this 2017 season has been such a gas for Milwaukee fans. It has been over a month since the Brewers were in first place in the NL Central, but even with that, they've spent more time in that spot (60 days) than anyone else in the division. They're only 3 1/2 games out of first place entering Thursday's action, and creeping up ever closer to the Colorado Rockies in in the Wild Card race, three games behind them. The rest of baseball has been waiting for either the Cubs to run away with the NL Central or the Cardinals to make a run to take advantage of the Cubs' post-championship lethargy. Neither has happened. The Brewers remain. They haven't faded in the slightest. And this weekend they beat one of the best teams in baseball two out of three times, on the road.
How are they doing this? When you close your eyes and think of the Brewers, you probably think of Ryan Braun -- who was No. 1 on everybody's "who's getting traded at the Deadline?" piece back in April -- and Eric Thames, but while each of those guys are having fine seasons (even if Thames has tailed off considerably since his hot starts and now regularly sits against lefties), neither one of them is even the best hitter on the team. That would be Travis Shaw, who has been the monster he never was in Boston, hitting 27 homers and playing an excellent third base. (He's been roughly equivalent to Nolan Arenado offensively when you adjust for park factor.) The lineup is deeper than you think, with Domingo Santana, Jesus Aguilar, Manny Pina and a crazy streaky Keon Broxton giving the Brewers pop from any position in the lineup. Stephen Vogt and Neil Walker have been savvy Deadline additions as well.
But the surprise of late, particularly in the Dodgers series, has been the pitching. Chase Anderson has come on to pitch like an ace, but the stars against Los Angeles were Zach Davies and Jimmy Nelson (a reliable innings-eater for three years now who has taken a big step forward this year). Davies is a particularly odd duck: a low-strikeout pitcher -- only six per nine innings, actually lower than Mike Leake's -- who has leveraged a low homer rate and low walk rate to the most wins in baseball (15). I know you're not supposed to care about wins anymore, and understandably so, but Davies is tied for the league lead with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Clearly he's doing something right. And he was magnificent against the Dodgers, giving up just three hits in seven innings of shutout ball, with no walks. Against the best offense in baseball. Davies has given up just one run in his last three starts and looking like Maddux out there this month.
Add that to the Brewers' bullpen strengths -- Corey Knebel has been devastating all season, and top prospect Josh Hader has turned into a nightmare to deal with as a super LOOGY -- and you've got yourself a legitimate September contender. Every time we've expected the Brewers to fade, they've surged again.
In a way, these Brewers resemble the 2015 Cubs. They're not as good as that team -- which won 97 games to claim a Wild Card spot and made it to the NLCS -- but they're a young club that's a year ahead of schedule, a team with a shining future that's gotten better quicker than anyone, including themselves, thought they would be. This is a team that still has six prospects in the MLB Pipeline Top 100, five of whom should be in Milwaukee next month or next season. Brewers general manager David Stearns (who was born the same year as Justin Turner, by the way) resisted the temptation to go all-in and start shipping away top prospects at the Deadline, but he still helped out his team, bringing in Vogt and Walker. He has been prudent and patient and wise: He didn't lose his head about this team's hot start, but he didn't pretend this wasn't real either.
And now here the Brewers are. They've got three more games of this homestand left against the Cardinals and Nationals after having split the first two with the Redbirds, and then, other than a three-game set at Marlins Park, it's just the NL Central the rest of the way. You can make an argument that they're playing their best baseball right now, as the Cardinals and Rockies are beginning to fade. They're not favorites to make the playoffs, but if anyone's going to chase down the Rockies or even the Cubs, they're the best bet, not the Cardinals or the Marlins. And if it doesn't work out for them, and they fall just short, remember: This is just the transition year. The Brewers will be better in just about every way next year than they were this one, and will be in a better position to start spending some of that money their loyal fans have given them for the last decade. They currently have the lowest payroll in baseball, but they've shown willingness to spend in the past when they have the talent. And that talent is almost here.
The Brewers might make the playoffs this year, or they might not. But they have, with this season and this weekend, shown that they have arrived. This looks like a playoff contender for years to come. Few franchises, and fan bases, have earned it more.
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