The next few days present either a rebound or a reckoning for your 2014 Milwaukee Brewers and, alas, the latter looks far more likely at the moment.
This is what the 162-game schedule ultimately accomplishes, weeding out the sleepers and the creepers from the stalwarts. And if the Brewers don't suddenly return to form offensively, defensively and on the mound in a four-game series with a Cardinals club that's finally living up to expectations, they could find themselves buried in a division they once commanded.
They commanded it largely on the might and the fumes of their sensational 20-7 start. In a parity-driven season that has, frankly, asked little of its contending clubs, there was really no shame in the arrangement. By the looks of things, the Brewers could have gone .500 the rest of the way and comfortable coasted to their second division title in four years.
The home stretch, however, is an animal all its own, and, over the last couple weeks, Milwaukee -- thanks to a mix of bad baseball and a little bad luck -- has largely not looked up to the challenge that stretch presents. Their past power-hitting prowess has gone AWOL, they've booted the ball around with reckless regularity, and their ace-less pitching staff has finally shown its cracks.
Oh, and losing Carlos Gomez for at least a week and possibly two with a sprained wrist was just another kick to the collective groin that the Brewers didn't need and, I'd say, can't afford.
What could have been a coast has looked much more like a collapse.
All right, so, what the heck happened here?
As recently as Aug. 19, the Brewers not only had a 2 ½-game lead in the National League Central but also a 50.9-percent chance of nailing that division down (per FanGraphs' playoff probabilities) and, worst-case scenario, an 87.5-percent chance of getting into playoffs via the Wild Card.
But an eight-game losing streak has dropped them three games back of the Cards, with just a 16.8 percent chance of winning the division and a less-than-50/50 (49 percent) chance of reaching that 50/50 Wild Card round.
Well, we can probably take a step back from all of this and say it's ultimately a credit to the Brewers that we're even disappointed in them at the moment. By that, I mean, how many non-Milwaukeeans among us considered this club more than a sexy sleeper pick going into the season, particularly given the depth of that Central Division?
Then, as now, you could be appreciative of -- but not overly enamored by -- the state of their rotation and the possibility of a bounceback year for an offense that saw so little of Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez. You could certainly label them a potential wild card contender but a division favorite? Hardly.
The 20-7 stretch -- and the general mediocrity of a Senior Circuit in which eight of 15 clubs have losing records -- changed all that. The conversation took on a decidedly different tone.
It was a start that defied convention, and refreshingly so. The Brewers became just the fourth team in the wild card era to win 20 games in the season's first month, and they did it while scoring a pedestrian 4.11 runs per game with the worst walk rate (one per 15.85 plate appearances) and the fewest pitches per plate appearance (3.60) in baseball.
Even if the Brewers' success was seen as unsustainable, at least they were a different breed at a time when so many clubs prioritize patience and making pitchers work. It was nice to see a club blissfully hack away at its fate. The Brewers understood that today's game does not necessarily reward those who run up starters' pitch counts to get to the bullpen, and their own 'pen, with its 2.16 ERA in that 27-game stretch, was evidence of this.
And that gets us to the meat of the matter, which is that the Brewers' pitching staff was over its skis in that opening month.
Francisco Rodriguez, Tyler Thornburg, Will Smith, Zach Duke and Brandon Kintzler combined to give up just five runs in 62 1/3 innings of work in that opening sequence. It was never going to be that good again for the Brewers bullpen, which has since seen Thornburg and Jim Henderson get scratched for the season, Kintzler deal with shoulder issues and Smith and Duke buckle under the weight of consistent use. As a result, the Brewers have the third-highest relief ERA in baseball since April 29.
The rotation, meanwhile, was a beacon of health until Matt Garza went down in early August, and that sort of stability alone can be remarkably beneficial to a ballclub.
Still, you'd feel better about the Brewers' chances of overcoming their newly challenging odds if they had a stopper. Garza sure wasn't one in his return from his oblique strain Wednesday night at Wrigley, and, as FanGraphs notes, not one starter ranks in the top 30 in Fielding Independent Pitching-based WAR. This is significant because it's something that can't be said of any other club in current playoff position.
Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, Yovani Gallardo and Garza have all hovered around league average in adjusted ERA. The rookie Jimmy Nelson, whom Doug Melvin simply didn't want to part with in conversations with the Rays about David Price, has shown flashes of effectiveness but also inconsistency with his command. And while Mike Fiers has been a revelation of late, going 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts, the 29-year-old's high strand rate of 82.7 percent (the league average is 72.9) does make him a candidate for some fallback.
Look, league average, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when the league average is so stingy these days. But the bullpen isn't supporting the starting staff anywhere near as effectively as it did in April (hence, a last-minute bid for brilliance from August waiver claim Jonathan Broxton, who will make at least $11 million next season between his 2015 guarantee and his 2016 buyout). And the offense is still getting on-base at a below-average pace (a .313 OBP since April 29) but, in recent days, the power you gain as a supposed tradeoff to the ho-hum walk rate has gone absent.
This is where Gomez's absence really stings. Three years ago, such an absence might have been met with a shrug, but he's since established himself among the NL elite, and his weighted runs created a plus mark of 130, which was second on the team only to that of MVP candidate Jonathan Lucroy (132). Gomez was particularly vital given the nerve issue in Braun's hand that has helped sap the former MVP of much of his once-prodigious power.
Ultimately, the Brewers look like an example of water finding its level in the 162-game schedule. They bought themselves an irresistible opportunity with that absurd April. All they had to do was win as much as they lost for the next five months, and they'd be fitted for a division crown.
Now, it's going to take much more than that for the Brewers to recover from their recent free fall. And with the Cards coming to town for four, the recovery must be immediate.