By Cliff Corcoran
With just 11 games left in their season, the Milwaukee Brewers trail the Cubs by four games in the loss column atop the National League Central, but are now just one game behind the Rockies for the second Wild Card spot in the NL. Twelve days ago, they lost their best starting pitcher, righty Jimmy Nelson, to a season-ending shoulder injury. But the Brewers never got down on themselves.
"We don't have a lot of margin for error," Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said after his team's 3-0 win over the Pirates in Pittsburgh Monday night, "so another win adds a little pressure to the teams we're chasing." (The Brewers took the second game in the series, 1-0, on Tuesday night and will go for the sweep on Wednesday night.)
"We have to keep winning," added Monday's starting pitcher, Brent Suter.
The Brewers have been doing just that. Tuesday night's win was their ninth in their past 11 games, a stretch over which they have outscored their opponents 61-26. That surge began with a three-game sweep of the Cubs in Chicago in which they outscored the defending World Series champions, 20-3. The Brewers still have four more games against the Cubs remaining, all of them in Milwaukee. That series opens on Thursday, and it seems likely that it will decide the fate of the Brew Crew.
The Cubs are by far the best team on the Brewers' remaining schedule, which consists exclusively of NL Central teams. Milwaukee got the best of Chicago earlier this month, but the Cubs have otherwise rediscovered their championship form in the second half of the 2017 season. Since play resumed after the All-Star break, the Cubs have gone 41-21 with a +107 run differential, both tops in the National League and second only to the Indians in the Majors in the second half. Since the Brewers swept them earlier this month, the Cubs have peeled off seven straight wins, padding their division lead in the process.
Meanwhile, the Rockies, the other team the Brewers are chasing, have picked up the pace themselves, going 10-5 since Sept. 4. And though Colorado dropped a game to the Giants on Tuesday, they have a series coming up against the Padres, against which the Rox have had success this season.
The fact that the Brewers are even in this position is remarkable and impressive. Yes, the Cubs' first-half struggles and the Rockies' August swoon created opportunity, but Milwaukee's contention has more to do with resiliency than anything else.
The Brewers scored 5.1 runs per game over the season's first two months. In May, they went 15-12 (.556), outscored their opponents by 21 runs and surged into first place in the Central on May 17. They remained there for all but two days through July 25, when the Cubs' post-break surge and Milwaukee's only losing month combined to drop the Brewers into second place. Milwaukee's offense has gone cold in the second half, scoring just 4.0 runs per game since the break, but the team's pitching has picked up the slack, holding opponents to that same four runs per game since July 1, a period during which the average NL team has allowed 4.6 runs per game.
Nelson had been a big part of that, posting a 3.56 ERA over 13 starts between the start of July and his injury, which occurred when he dove back into first base on Sept. 8, damaging the rotator cuff and partially tearing the labrum in his pitching shoulder. Now, with him out, Matt Garza having pitched his way out of the rotation and Junior Guerra not having started a game, or thrown more than 21 pitches in an outing, since returning from the disabled list earlier this month, the Brewers have no clear fifth starter. This past Friday, Milwaukee took advantage of an off-day and gave the entire game to its fully rested bullpen. The Brewers won't have that option when they need a fifth man again against the Pirates on Wednesday, but with an off-day next Monday, they'll only need a fifth man one more time. Every game is crucial, and in the best-case scenario, they'll still be fighting for a playoff spot when that need arises against the Cardinals on the penultimate day of the season.
All of that magnified the importance of Suter's performance Monday night. Inserted into the rotation in July, the soft-tossing rookie lefty posted a 1.50 ERA in five starts that month, but struggled in his first three starts in August before landing on the disable list with a rotator cuff strain of his own. He returned to action on Sept. 3, but hadn't thrown more than three innings or 50 pitches in either of his starts since his return. Monday night, Suter completed five scoreless frames throwing 64 pitches. He did that against an admittedly diminished Pirates lineup, but that outing will nonetheless allow the Brewers to start him with confidence on Saturday, in the penultimate game of the Cubs series, and put him in position to stretch out to or even beyond 80 pitches in that game.
With Suter in place, the Brewers have their four established starters lined up to face Chicago. Sophomore Zach Davies (2.32 ERA in his last 12 starts including a 2.57 ERA in two seven-inning outings against the Cubs) will open the series Thursday night. Rookie Brandon Woodruff (3.28 ERA in six starts since making his Major League debut Aug. 4) is scheduled to start Friday night. Suter will likely get Saturday's game, and Chase Anderson (2.88 ERA on the season including a 2.84 mark in six starts since returning from an oblique injury on August 20) is lined up to take the hill for the Sunday afternoon finale.
The Brewers are still in the mix, and that's all they can ask. Now they just have to keep winning.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.