Sunday September 21st, 2014

The long, slow collapse of the Milwaukee Brewers is almost complete. With Sunday's 1-0 loss to the Pirates, the Brewers — who just one month ago were leading the National League Central — were eliminated from the division race and are on the verge of being knocked out of the wild-card race.

Sunday was as do-or-die as it gets for a team. Having split the first two games of this weekend's three-game set with Pittsburgh, Milwaukee needed a win to keep its scant division hopes alive, and more importantly, to keep pace in the chase for the second wild-card spot. The Brewers came into the day trailing the Pirates by 3 1/2 games in that race, and with no head-to-head games remaining between the teams after Sunday's finale, a loss would be crippling to Milwaukee's playoff chances.

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On the mound, the Brewers got everything they could have hoped for and more out of Wily Peralta. The 25-year-old Dominican was nearly flawless through his first six innings, giving up just one hit and using his sinker to get groundballs for much-needed double plays. He finally tripped up in the seventh, however, as a leadoff single by Andrew McCutchen was followed by a passed ball, a wild pitch and then an RBI single from Russell Martin to give Pittsburgh its first and only run of the game.

That lone tally would be more than enough for the other man on the hill: Vance Worley. The former Phillies product was untouchable for eight brilliant innings. He allowed just four hits, walked no one and struck out five. Using a four-pitch mix of his four-seam fastball, sinker, slider and cutter, Worley kept the Brewers completely off balance. He needed just 82 pitches to get through his eight scoreless frames, never throwing more than 14 pitches in an inning and only once letting a runner get to second base or further. Worley retired the last 13 Brewers he faced in order, finishing his day with a flourish by striking out two in his last inning of work.

Though Worley had cruised through his eight innings, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle made the curious decision to turn to his bullpen for the ninth inning. That was despite not having closer Mark Melancon available, as the righthander had pitched an inning each of the last three days. Instead, Hurdle went to left-hander Tony Watson for the save, a move that looked like it might backfire when Carlos Gomez led the inning off with a single. Trouble seemed all but certain when the next batter, pinch-hitter Rickie Weeks, hit a ball to Watson that he bobbled and was unable to get to first base in time. But that momentary glimmer of hope for the Brewers was killed by Milwaukee's biggest blunder of the day, as Gomez had gone too far around second and was caught in a rundown.

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Instead of first and second with no one out, the Brewers were reduced to a man on first with one out. Jonathan Lucroy followed by popping out to shortstop Jordy Mercer, and though Aramis Ramirez reached on a hit-by-pitch, Ryan Braun flew out to McCutchen in center field, ending the Brewers' rally and likely their playoff dreams.

The loss is just the latest in what's been one of the worst month-long stretches in baseball. Since Aug. 26, when the Brewers held a 1 1/2-game lead in the NL Central and boasted a 93 percent chance of making the playoffs, Milwaukee has gone a staggering 7-17. That includes losing streaks of nine games and four games, as well as a 2-6 mark against the Cardinals that essentially handed the division to St. Louis. In less than a month, Milwaukee lost eight games in the Central standings, with Sunday's win mathematically eliminating the Brewers from a division title.

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A chance remains at a wild-card spot, but things are equally bleak there. The Brewers are now 4 1/2 games back of Pittsburgh with six games left in their schedule, none against the Pirates. Milwaukee's final sextet of games comes against two teams already well out of the playoff picture in the Reds and Cubs, but the Pirates' final stretch is equally easy: Three games against Cincinnati and a four-game set against the Braves, who were eliminated from the postseason race with Sunday's loss to the Mets.

The biggest reason for Milwaukee's September implosion? An offense that simply failed to show up when it counted most. The team's OPS on the month is a mere .633 — 24th in baseball in that span. That includes a team-wide power outage, with Milwaukee hitting only 12 homers on the month and slugging just .332. The team's most dependable sluggers have seen their power stroke vanish this month. Braun has only one homer in 60 September at-bats; Gomez and Lucroy have none. In fact, the Brewers' leader in homers on the month is September call-up Matt Clark, who has hit three in spot duty.

With Sunday's loss, the Brewers' tragic number is now just three. They are the last team left standing in the NL playoff race. As for Pittsburgh, the weekend's successful series likely locks the Pirates into a wild-card spot, with the possibility that they could leapfrog the Giants for the wild-card lead. That would give Pittsburgh the chance to host a second straight wild-card play-in game. The Pirates beat the Reds last season to earn an NLDS date with the Cardinals, where they fell in five games. The Pirates would likely avoid a rematch of last year's division series should they make it out of the Wild Card game, but their task would be no easier if they did, with the red-hot Nationals instead set to be their first-round date.

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