Three Strikes: Losing Stretch Drops Brewers to Edge of Playoff Race
The Brewers appear as if they will fade out of the National League playoff race, one the Dodgers are very much leading despite a rare loss Wednesday. Sonny Gray's Yankee debut remains on tap in Cleveland Thursday night.
With roughly one-third of the season yet to be played, the competition for a postseason berth in the National League is looking less like a compelling race than a game of musical chairs. Six teams are still dancing. Five will find a seat at the postseason table. One will not. If the past two weeks are any indication, it’s looking increasingly likely that we know which team that will be.
The Milwaukee Brewers were not supposed to be anywhere near the postseason discussion this late into the year after dropping 89 games a year ago and 94 in 2015, but that doesn’t make their second-half slide any easier to take for their fans. Wednesday night’s 5-4 loss to the Cardinals at Miller Park was their 11th in the past 15 games, the worst record in that stretch in the National League and second-worst in the majors, ahead of only the White Sox.
Chicago’s built-in excuse is that it has traded virtually every decent player on its roster in the past 12 months, and even some that weren’t that valuable. Milwaukee, which acquired just two middle relievers before Monday’s trade deadline in Jeremy Jeffress and Anthony Swarzak, has no such alibi. Instead, if the Brewers are to reach the postseason for just the third time in the past 35 years, they will do so largely with the roster that has been in place all season.
The other NL playoff hopefuls each made a significant upgrade at a position of need: the Nationals, who are running away with the NL East, have attempted to patch the worst bullpen in baseball by getting relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the A’s in mid-July and Twins closer Brandon Kintzler at the trade deadline; the Dodgers are on pace to be one of the winningest teams in baseball history yet still acquired four-time All-Star Yu Darvish from the Rangers; the wild-card leading Diamondbacks (J.D. Martinez) and Rockies (ex-Brewer Jonathan Lucroy) added impact hitters.
And, of course, the Cubs made the first and perhaps most significant move of July when they struck a deal with the crosstown White Sox for lefthander Jose Quintana coming out of the All-Star break. Since play resumed the Cubs have matched the Dodgers’ MLB-best 12 wins, with Quintana responsible for two of them in his three starts, all quality.
This is not to say that the Brewers made a mistake by largely standing pat at the deadline. They entered this season with a minor league system ranked No. 5 in the majors by MLB.com and have four players on Baseball America’s midseason top-100 list, tied with the Cardinals for the most among NL Central teams. Milwaukee can vouch for the talent of one of those promising St. Louis prospects, as righty Luke Weaver (No. 65 by BA, a drop of 21 spots since the preseason) picked up the win on Wednesday by allowing just five hits and two runs in 6 1/3 innings.
With the loss, Milwaukee remains 2 ½ games behind the Cubs in the NL Central and five games out in the wild-card race. Neither are insurmountable deficits to overcome, but doing so will mean reversing troubling trendlines that suggest that a season that was never meant to be theirs, won’t be.
2. Streak busters
The Dodgers’ incredible season has been filled with amazing numbers, and they kept coming on Wednesday even in defeat. Los Angeles’ 5-3 loss to the Braves in Atlanta was its first in the past 53 games in which it held a lead, and in this case the Dodgers coughed up a pair of one-run advantages. It also left them one short of an incredible feat: a third 10-game winning streak in the same season, something last accomplished by the 1954 Milwaukee Braves. Even more impressively, all three streaks have come since the middle of June. Strangely enough, each of L.A.’s last three losses since July 4 have come against Atlanta.
Los Angeles is still on pace to win 113 games this season, which would be the most in the National League since the 1906 Cubs won a record 116.
Despite losing 2-0 to the Tigers at Yankee Stadium in a game that took more than seven hours to complete because of rain delays, Sonny skies are in view for the Yankees. Newly acquired righthander Sonny Gray will make his much-anticipated debut for the team on Thursday when he faces the Indians in Cleveland. Gray was brought over to help stabilize a New York rotation that lost Michael Pineda to Tommy John surgery, can’t get any consistency out of Masahiro Tanaka (who took the loss on Wednesday to fall to 8-10 with a 4.93 ERA) and has been counting far too much lately on the likes of Caleb Smith and Jordan Montgomery. Gray’s outing opposite Corey Kluber will be the first sign of how much help he can provide to a team that is just one game behind the Red Sox in the AL East standings.
Gray has not pitched well at Progressive Field, getting tagged for a 5.87 ERA in four career starts and surrendering nine hits and seven earned runs without making it through the fifth inning on May 30. He did, however, toss six shutout innings against the Indians in the first game after the All-Star break and enters Thursday boasting a 1.37 ERA in his previous six outings.
Gray’s rate stats of hits, home runs and walks per nine innings are all 0.1 better than his career rates, but his strikeout rate is 8.7 this year compared to 7.7 for his five-year career overall. He also has the best Fielding Independent Pitching mark (3.25) of any full-season yet. He’s still just 27 years old and only two seasons removed from finishing third in the AL Cy Young race. New York doesn’t need him to be Cy Young. It does need him to be better than Caleb Smith.