The Brewers' defense of first place in the NL Central has gotten that much tougher with the loss of Matt Garza to an oblique strain.
Another day, another NL Central contender losing a key contributor for what is likely the remainder of the month. This time it's Brewers starter Matt Garza, who left Sunday afternoon's start against the Cardinals after straining his left oblique while delivering his 70th pitch.
The injury had a direct impact on the outcome of the game, the rubber match of a three-game set between the division’s top two teams. Garza had held the Cardinals scoreless while retiring 17 of the 19 Cardinals he faced. He hit Matt Adams with a pitch to lead off the second inning, though Johnny Peralta followed by grounding into a double play; Adams then broke up Garza's no-hit bid with a leadoff double in the fifth inning.
Garza threw one pitch after suffering the strain, retiring Matt Carpenter on a flyball to finish the sixth, but could only watch as reliever Zach Duke surrendered three runs in the seventh in a rally that proved decisive. The 3-2 loss closed the gap in the NL Central race, with the Brewers (61-51) still clinging to a one-game lead over the Cardinals (59-51). Milwaukee has owned at least a share of first place since April 5.
Garza has played a significant role in maintaining that lead. Signed to a four-year, $50 million deal in late January, he took a no-hitter into the seventh in his April 2 debut, though he was knocked around for a 4.84 ERA through the season's first two months due to a spate of homers. He's been on a roll since the start of June, however, pitching to a 2.52 ERA while allowing just three longballs in 78 1/3 innings, though a .235 batting average on balls in play during that span hasn't hurt. In all, his 3.58 ERA (104 ERA+) is quite representative of his peripherals; his 3.53 FIP — his best mark since 2011 — and his 70-percent quality start rate both represent the best marks among the Brewers' starters, with the latter tied with Kyle Lohse.
Garza is eligible to return from the disabled list on August 19, but given the recovery timetables associated with oblique strains, it's quite possible that 30-year-old righty won't be back before September, particularly given that he doesn't exactly have a reputation as a fast healer. This marks the fourth straight year Garza has served a DL stint; he missed 17 games in 2011 with an elbow contusion, 69 in 2012 with a stress fracture in his elbow, 43 in 2013 with a lat strain, and now this.
While the team recalled reliever Rob Wooten from Triple-A Nashville to fill Garza's spot on the 25-man roster, it appears as though Marco Estrada will take his spot among the starting five. The 31-year-old righty began the year in the rotation and made 18 starts for the Brewers, putting up a 4.96 ERA while allowing a jaw-dropping 2.3 homers per nine before being pushed to the bullpen in early July in favor of rookie Jimmy Nelson. Estrada's ERA is down to 4.83, but his FIP is an astronomical 5.52, the highest in the majors for any qualified starter — by more than half a run, at that. Nelson, the team's second-round draft pick from 2010, has outpitched Estrada; called up from Nashville after posting a 1.46 ERA through 111 innings in a hitter-friendly league, he's since held his own across four big league starts, the last two of which were quality.
Still at Nashville as an alternative to Estrada is 29-year-old righty Mike Fiers, who put up a 3.74 ERA while striking out an eye-opening 9.5 per nine in 22 starts and one relief appearance for the Brewers in 2012. Fiers got off to a dreadful start in 2013; demoted to Nashville after putting up a 7.25 ERA in 22 1/3 innings, he wound up pitching through the declining health of his mother before missing more than half the season due to a batted ball-induced right forearm fracture. This year, he's put up a 2.55 ERA with 11.5 strikeouts and 1.5 walks per nine at Nashville, and since he's on the same turn as Garza — and thus not of much use for another couple of days — he could soon slot into the rotation if he's not called up as a long man.
Beyond those internal options, general manager Doug Melvin could seek an upgrade on Estrada via a waiver deal prior to the August 31 deadline. The Brewers aren’t the only contender seeking pitching help, of course, but so long as they maintain the second-best record in the league, all of the teams in pursuit of their spot atop the NL Central are higher in the waiver wire pecking order, meaning that they would have the upper hand in a claim, whether in an attempt to deal for the pitcher in question themselves or simply to block a trade to a team with a better record.
In any event, the loss of Garza rates as a significant blow, one that could reshape both the NL Central and wild card races. The good news is that for the moment the Brewers are still on top, and that they can hope to get Garza back before the end of the season, but having lost a considerable piece of their roster for several weeks, they have considerably less breathing room than they did before.