Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A magical sprint to the finish line
September to remember saved Brewers’ season
Assessing the Milwaukee Brewers’ 2019 season as a whole is not an easy undertaking, mainly because it became a tale of two rosters.
When the Brewers played with a 25man roster over the first five months, they never truly got hot, barely keeping their heads above the .500 mark. Injuries and poor performances by several key players from the previous season had a lot to do with that struggle.
But, when the roster was expanded to nearly the 40-man capacity, for the second consecutive September the Brewers took off. They went 18-2 over a threeweek stretch, reeled in the Chicago Cubs for the second wild-card berth and even flirted with another National League Central crown before falling short on the final weekend.
In the massive rebuild that began in earnest in 2015, president of baseball operations David Stearns spoke often about the importance of building depth. And it was that depth that allowed the Brewers to take flight once again in September, salvaging the season and securing a second consecutive playoff berth for only the second time in franchise history.
“I think we recognize, as most seasons are, this was an imperfect season,” Stearns said. “But there was a lot of positive that came from it. A lot of players, maybe some of whom we didn’t expect to play (bigger) roles on our team, ended up making very significant contributions in very high-leverage situations, and putting ourselves in a playoff spot. And that’s meaningful to us.
“For the first five months of the season, we played very inconsistent baseball. We had periods throughout that span where I thought we were a really good baseball team. Early in the season, I thought we played a very tough schedule and we played it very well. We had a stretch over the heart of the summer where there were a lot of ups and downs.
“We battled injuries, we battled some inconsistent performance from key players on our team, and we were still able to keep ourselves close enough so that a good run got us back to the playoffs. That’s not easy to do. There are a lot of teams facing the obstacles that we faced this year that could have very easily fallen far enough out of it that even a
good run doesn't get you to where we got.”
In other words, where you end up is more important than how you got there. It took a 20-7 September to atone for a 13-13 June, 12-13 July and 12-14 August. After treading water for months, the Brewers became Olympic swimmers, blowing past those who couldn't keep up, such as the fading Cubs.
The bullpen, which had been the team's strength in 2018, particularly down the stretch, suffered two big blows at the outset. Corey Knebel was lost for the season during spring training when he blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. Jeremy Jeffress, coming off the best season of his career, started the year on the injured list with shoulder weakness and never really caught up, eventually getting released with a month to go in the season.
There were significant fall-offs in individual performance that could not be foreseen. Sluggers Travis Shaw and Jesús Aguilar, who combined for 67 home runs and 194 runs batted in 2018, fell into massive slumps from which they never recovered. Shaw spent considerable time in the minors trying to find his stroke, and Aguilar was traded to Tampa Bay in late July.
Veteran right-hander Jhoulys Chacín, who evolved into the staff ace (15-8, 3.50 ERA) the previous season, getting the ball in all the big games, including No. 163 in Chicago, never got out of the starting blocks. After stumbling to a 310 record and 5.79 ERA in 19 starts, and spending stints on the IL, Chacín was eventually cut loose in late August.
Centerfielder Lorenzo Cain's production also dropped dramatically from 2018, in large part due to nagging injuries. He stayed in the lineup as often as possible and remained a differencemaker in the field, but he could not duplicate his steady presence in the leadoff spot in the lineup (.390 on-base percentage in '18).
One player who did replicate his 2018 showing was reigning NL most valuable player Christian Yelich, who continued to be an indomitable force in the lineup. Yelich's at-bats again were must-see, prompting home fans to properly time visits to the concession stands.
The Brewers went 48 years without a batting champion, but Yelich was the top hitter (.329) in the league for a second straight season, despite missing the last 21⁄2 weeks with a broken kneecap. He also topped the NL with a .429 on-base percentage, .671 slugging percentage and 1.100 OPS, with 44 home runs despite playing in only 130 games.
“I think Christian never ceases to surprise me,” Stearns said. “I think he is so gifted, not only athletically and as a player, but also taking certain bits of information or taking certain things that are whispered or said, and using them as motivation.
“I think we saw that a little bit this year when there was a little bit of talk whether he could repeat his (2018) season, or if there would be regression. I think he just took that and ran with it and his philosophy was kind of, ‘I'll show you. You think there's going to be some natural regression? Just wait and see.'
“He put together a season that, from start to finish, was probably better than the season he had before. We're fortunate to have him. He's one of the best players in baseball and he has done an awesome job for us.”
The last additions to the team before the season began – Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal – turned out to be everything the Brewers needed, and more. Moustakas blasted 35 homers, drove in 87 runs and volunteered to move to second base in the spring to make the lineup work. Grandal was a workhorse behind the plate, an on-base machine (.380 OBP) and a steadying influence for a pitching staff that remained in flux much of the year.
A team built around veterans, especially among the position players, received an unforeseen lift from two young players – second baseman Keston Hiura and outfielder Trent Grisham. Hiura took over as the everyday second baseman when Shaw's offensive collapse prompted the return of Moustakas to third base and became an immediate offensive force (.938 OPS). Grisham became a valuable late-season addition to the outfield, particularly after Yelich went down, and figures prominently in the team's future.
The late-season surge allowed the Brewers to put behind them all the things that went wrong and use a teamoriented approach to grab an improbable playoff berth. The late-inning wildcard loss to the Washington Nationals was painful, and that disappointment will linger for a while, but the Brewers were one of 10 teams to make it to October baseball, which left plenty of fond memories as well.
“We recognize this wasn't a perfect year,” Stearns said. “Maybe not as much went as planned this year as may have in 2018. I certainly recognize that, but overall I'm very proud of the effort and where we got to as an organization this year.
“I think, as an organization, we've set our goals as consistently competing for playoff spots, division titles, and ultimately, World Series. We've now been able to do that three years in row. In 2017, we came up a game short (of a wild-card berth). Last year, we got to Game 7 of the NLCS. This year, we made the playoffs and lost in the first round.
“Clearly, I would have liked to have gone deeper but I'm proud that we have maintained a consistently high level of play. We've maintained a very competitive product now over there consecutive years and I anticipate, and expect, we're going to continue doing that going forward.”