They were right there. Three weeks ago, the Milwaukee Brewers had a 2.5 game lead atop the National League Central. A miniscule amount in most races, but in this zany Major League Baseball season full of average teams, that was a massive count. The Brewers had the best run differential in the NL after the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers, and had been in at least a tie for first place for two-thirds of the season. Why would anyone doubt the Brewers’ ability to hold onto that division lead? They looked like they couldn’t be usurped from first place.
Today, the St. Louis Cardinals, the proverbial face of the division in the postseason, lead the NL Central by four games. The Brewers now have a run differential of +4—not even the best in their division anymore—have lost ten of their last 11 games, and are barely even surviving in the Wild Card race. Just like in Oakland, Wisconsin baseball fans are biting their nails and rocking back and forth every day they check the standings, watching, dreading, palpitating, as they see their club inch closer towards being out of the postseason picture, inch towards being one of the biggest disappointments this season. Sure, the Brewers’ rotation has never looked dominating, but it’s been good enough to get them by—heck, even excel—in a tame NL Central. Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, and Wily Peralta have mostly been OK. Lohse and Peralta have been particularly susceptible to the long ball, but with Mike Fiers’s recent stellar pitching, and the offense and bullpen cleaning up any mess, the Brewers have been able to pound out plenty of wins and strong statistics. They looked like they could give the Nats and Dodgers a tough five- or seven-game series in the postseason. Over the last three weeks, though, Milwaukee’s pitching has been so leaky that there haven’t been enough offensive and bullpen brooms to clean up. 10-2 loss, 13-2 loss, 15-5 loss—in short, the NL Central club has played like, well, an NL Central club. And that’s precisely why it would be a major disappointment if the Brewers don’t make the postseason: the NL Central is so tame this year. Not a single Central team has a run differential over +15. Two of them that fought for playoff berths for months while the Brewers were in first place, have surrendered more runs than they’ve scored. Most of the teams in the NL Central have poor records against the other divisions. Regardless of the names on paper, the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds, the three teams that battled Milwaukee the last few months for supremacy in the division, were inferior to the Brewers the entire time Milwaukee was in first place. It wasn’t inevitable that one of them would take first place because they were so good; the Brewers were in their rightful spot. It’s no secret that the Cardinals—up until the last few weeks—and the Reds have hit like they play in Dodger Stadium. Both teams were noteworthy for years for their exploits at the plate but are in the bottom five in baseball in runs scored in 2014. Despite the Cardinals having five hitters with on-base percentages over .340, their low slugging and hits with runners in scoring position have cost them wins that they took last year. And Cincinnati would probably give up a few players to even have some on-base guys; their team OBP is the second-worst in MLB. On the Pittsburgh side, while the Pirates have given the Brewers pause because they have hit, their pitching staff has hardly been the equal to the one that got them their first postseason berth in 21 years. Their bullpen has been strong, with three relievers having Fielding Independent Pitching less than 3.3. But the rotation’s best attempt at an ace is Vance Worley, whose numbers (118 ERA+, 1.259 WHIP, 20 walks in 91.1 innings pitched) are good but not spectacular, while the rest of the Pirates’ rotation has been average or less than average.
All those disclaimers, yet the Brewers are now four games behind the Cardinals and just half a game ahead of Pittsburgh. A plausible theory to explain why the Brewers are slumping so badly is that they’ve hit a talent wall. Their bench is much too weak compared to some of the other playoff-position teams, notably St. Louis. Since they won the division crown three years ago, the Brewers haven’t been trains of triumph down the stretch. They might be gassed. Even if that is true, that’s no excuse for the Brewers to not be in first place in such a weak division. Milwaukee compares better to the other clubs in many categories. They have had the best offense in the NL Central, scoring eight more runs than Pittsburgh—after slumping—and still collecting more than 50 extra runs than the Reds and the Cardinals. The Brewers may not get on base very often, but they still get on at a much higher clip than the Reds and Cardinals, and are one of the best power teams in the game, smacking 138 home runs and slugging .408.
While the Pirates and Brewers overall this season have hit comparably well, the Brewers have the edge in the rotation. The Gallardo-Fiers-Garza-Peralta-Lohse combination is deeper and more suitable for a stretch run than Worley-Volquez-Liriano-Cole-Locke.
With the bullpen, and especially the lineup, Milwaukee covers their rotation. They’ve had what they’ve needed to be the best team in the division. The Brewers were outscoring their opponents by about 50 runs on the season a few weeks ago, while the Pirates, Reds, and Cardinals have played it close to the chest all year.
Yet the Brewers never ran away with the division. They were more than ten games over .500 for a sustained period of time, but they never got big division leads. They let the Cardinals and Pirates hang around for five months, didn’t pull away while Pittsburgh was under .500, and didn’t build a big lead while St. Louis didn’t get big hits. Now those Brewers’ fans have to count the games. More than 75 percent of the Brewers’ remaining games are against NL Central opponents, including four more against the Cardinals and three more against the Pirates right on their tail in the Wild Card. There’s no time left for the Brewers to wait out a slump. September 30, the first day of the postseason, is almost here. They’re almost there.
They just hope they won’t have to say, “We were right there,” on that day.