Milwaukee has wasted three golden opportunities to gain ground on the Cubs and Rockies.
It took three days for the Brewers to go from upset-minded NL Central contender to teetering on the edge of the postseason race. Over the course of three brutal, gutting losses—one to the Pirates and two to the Cubs—Milwaukee has seen its playoff hopes take an absolute beating, throwing away three consecutive chances to cut into Chicago’s division lead and falling completely out of the Central race. Now the Brewers are on the verge of disappearing in the wild-card chase as well.
Start with Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh. Holding a 4–3 lead going into the bottom of the eighth and trailing the Cubs in the division by 3 ½ games, reliever Anthony Swarzak gave up a one-out double to Andrew McCutchen, then got Josh Bell to strike out for the second out. Out came Swarzak, in came closer Corey Knebel, the unhittable All-Star closer with a strikeout rate of 15 per nine, to try to get the four-out save in his third straight day of work. The hard-throwing righty got David Freese to tap a ball weakly to the right of the mound, then pounced on it … and fired wildly to first, allowing McCutchen to score.
Knebel recovered to get the third out, then came back out for the bottom of the ninth. After walking the leadoff man, he got the next two outs but couldn’t finish it, as Pirates outfielder Adam Frazier took a fastball and drove it out to right for the walk-off homer and a 6–4 Pittsburgh win. That blown game cost the Brewers a chance to pick up a game on the Cubs, who fell to the Rays in Tampa.
Next up for Milwaukee: the first game of a huge four-game set with Chicago at home—the last head-to-head series between the two teams season. The Brewers again took a slim lead into the late innings, up 3–2 heading to the ninth. But with Knebel unavailable, manager Craig Counsell was forced to tap righty Jeremy Jeffress to close it out. Things went awry: Ian Happ reached on an infield single he barely beat out in a footrace with Jeffress, then scored the tying run with two outs on Javier Baez’s single just past Orlando Arcia at shortstop.
Despite the blown save, the Brewers looked to have things figured out in the ninth, loading the bases with one out. But Domingo Santana struck out swinging against Cubs closer Wade Davis, who then got Arcia to ground out to end the frame. For the 10th inning, Counsell curiously went to middle reliever Oliver Drake against the top of Chicago’s order. He quickly made Counsell regret that choice, surrendering a double to Jon Jay and a two-run homer to Kris Bryant to make it 6–4. Offered a chance to come back, the Brewers couldn’t make anything happen in the bottom of the frame against Davis, who struck out the side to finish the game.
That took us to Friday. The Brewers—stop me if you’ve heard this before—again jumped out to a lead, homering twice off John Lackey to go up, 3–0. Chicago answered with four runs, picking up the tying and go-ahead tallies on a Ben Zobrist single off rookie starter Brandon Woodruff (left in to face Zobrist with two runners in scoring position and one out in another odd call by Counsell). Milwaukee tied it in the same inning courtesy back-to-back doubles by Ryan Braun and Travis Shaw, but the teams couldn’t undo the knot over the next four frames; after Shaw’s double, the next 13 Brewers went down in order.
The ninth inning saw Knebel come into the game for his fourth appearance in five days, and though he pitched around a leadoff single in his opening frame, Milwaukee again couldn’t survive the 10th. Bryant drew a walk to start the inning and went to third on Anthony Rizzo’s single. Counsell had Knebel intentionally load the bases with no outs to set up the force at every base despite his closer’s proclivity for wildness (he had allowed 37 walks in 71 innings going into the night). Knebel managed to strike out Jay, but pinch-hitter Tommy LaStella walked on five pitches to force in the go-ahead run.
Knebel finished the frame with no further damage, and that’s where things got truly cruel. With Davis unavailable for the save, Eric Sogard reached first against Carl Edwards Jr. with one out, then broke for second when a pitch bounced in front of home plate. Willson Contreras gathered and fired to second, where Sogard appeared to beat the throw and tag … only to be called out after he barely popped off the bag during his slide. The Brewers challenged to no avail, and Edwards got the third out to cap off a third straight miserable night for Milwaukee.
So if you’re keeping score at home: three losses for the Brewers in the late innings; two with their best reliever on the mound; and two against the team they’re chasing in the division. Had Milwaukee held on in those three games, Chicago’s lead would be a mere half-game with two head-to-head matchups still left. Instead the Cubs are up 5 ½ with a week to go and a magic number of four to clinch first place.
Making things far worse: While Milwaukee was blowing chances to catch the Cubs, the team also squandered its opportunity to jump the Rockies—who were mired in a four-game losing streak—for the second wild card. And to top all that off, as the Brewers have blundered, the suddenly hot Cardinals have won four straight to pass them in both the division and wild-card races. Should Colorado snap its skid and beat the Padres Friday, that would leave Milwaukee two games out of the second wild card with only eight games left on the schedule.
The Brewers’ playoff run was always more a pleasant surprise than anything to bank on, and there’s no shame in falling short to the mighty Cubs, particularly with a roster that has as bright a future as Milwaukee’s does. But even if the Brewers have played all season with house money, it still hurts beyond belief to bust like that with a postseason spot within reach. A fun season feels a little less so given that cruel of an ending.