This season's Brewers look strikingly familiar to the 2015 championship Royals, from Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain to fielding and relief pitching. Might history repeat itself?
MILWAUKEE — It was good weekend here to be Mike Moustakas. Here he was, in the National League Divisional Series, having been traded to the Milwaukee Brewers from Kansas City at the end of July and right into the middle of a pennant race, or a postseason race, or whatever it is you call these pursuits of demi-gonfalons in Major League Baseball these days. The Brewers had to win a one-game playoff with the Chicago Cubs just to take the Central Division title. Then, on Thursday, in the first game of the NLDS against the Colorado Rockies, the two teams locked up 2-2 at the end of the regulation nine innings, largely because Milwaukee closer Jeremy Jeffress came out rusty and gave up two runs in the ninth. One inning later, Moustakas slapped a 0-2 RBI single to give Milwaukee a 3-2 win.
On Friday, Milwaukee and Colorado again played at a razor’s edge, with the Brewers clinging to a 1-0 lead into the eighth inning, Milwaukee loaded the bases, Moustakas whacked a single into right and, when veteran catcher Erik Kratz, a 38-year old catcher playing in the first postseason game, drove in two more with a broken-bat hit to left, the Brewers had all the runs they need. Jeffress came in and got the save this time, and Milwaukee left for Colorado one game away from the NLCS.
“Playoff baseball is insane,” Moustakas said. “Anything can happen.”
By now, Moustakas is getting a reputation as one of Those Guys — the erstwhile role players who suddenly get as hot in October and rubber ghouls and candy corn. In both 2014 and 2015, he was crucial in the postseason for the Royals. He hit four homers for Kansas City in the 2014 postseason, including a pair in the World Series loss to San Francisco. A year later, he had eight RBI’s as the Royals stormed through the playoffs and beat the New York Mets for Kansas City’s first title in 30 years. He lost most of 2016 to a knee injury, but came back to hit 38 home runs in 2017. His contract made him so available that it was no wonder that Moustakas was an attractive bit of trade bait in the last offseason; the Yankees reportedly offered Todd Frazier for him last February. Kansas City waited out the trade deadline until the Brewers came up with a two-player package that rang the bell for them. And Moustakas was off to a young, talented team that needed someone with the kind of experience that Moustakas had, and the kind of postseason resume that’s made his MOOOOOOOOSE call a staple in the repertoire of the assembled noisy tetes de fromage at Miller Park.
“It’s fun,” Moustakas said after the second game. “I think the best thing about this team is that we’re having fun doing what we’re doing right now. We’re having fun coming to work every day. We come to compete every day and, ever since I’ve been here, we show up every single day. It doesn’t matter where we are or who we’re playing.
“This is the best part of baseball. October baseball is fun. To come out here and play before a packed crowd. The way they were coming out tonight was unbelievable. It’s just a lot of fun to come to work and play in October.”
As if to emphasize what Moustakas was saying, back in June, before the trade to Milwaukee ever happened, Neil Payne of Nate Silver’s 538 website pointed out at length how similar to the 2015 Royals the 2018 Brewers seemed to be, citing Milwaukee’s strong bullpen and its solid defensive metrics.
One of 2018’s top teams is taking a page out of K.C.’s championship playbook anyway. It isn’t just that the Milwaukee Brewers share the same centerfielder with those Royals — although another All-Star caliber season from Lorenzo Cain hasn’t exactly hurt the comparison. The Brewers are also leading the NL Central with a strikingly similar combination of fielding, relief pitching and clever base running, even as the advanced metrics remain skeptical. (Sound familiar, Royals fans?) All that’s left is for postseason history to repeat — assuming Kansas City’s winning formula still works in a game that looks very different than it did just a few seasons ago.
It also helped that the Brewers surprised everybody last season, winning 86 games, which was about 15-20 more than their predicted preseason total. Over the winter, they picked up Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, and they proved more than capable of building on the surprise season of 2017, but it hasn’t come easily.
Milwaukee has been playing baseball in a kind of playoff context ever since Labor Day, when they were five games behind the Cubs in the division. They beat the Cubs that day, 4-3 but, with their offense nearly petrified, they were still three-and-a-half back on September 19, when they lost to Cincinnati. However, over the rest of the month, the Brewers righted themselves. They finished up by winning 10 of their last 13, and averaging nearly seven runs a game. That won them a 163rd regular-season game against Chicago, whom they beat, 3-1, which gave them a running start into the first two NLDS games at home.
The team was built as an intriguing mixture of draft choices, free-agent signings, and trades like the one that brought Moustakas to town. When the chop shop that is the Florida Marlins was conducting one of their semi-annual fire sales, the Brewers stepped up last January and traded for Christian Yelich, who is only an MVP candidate this season. Yelich is in many ways Moustakas’s exact opposite, especially when it comes to postseason experience. Laboring in Miami, for a franchise that operates in much the same way as an elaborate money-laundering enterprise does, Yelich heard of the playoffs only as a vague rumor of baseball that might as well be played on Neptune.
“We’ve been playing a lot of big games down the stretch,” Yelich said after the first game of the series. “This place was packed for the last homestead of the year. You’re just trying to slow it down.
“Obviously, you have the nervous energy before that first pitch in the first inning and, after that, it’s back to baseball. You’re just trying to slow everything down and not let the moment consume you. You’re just trying to focus on what you have to do. You’ve got to realize that it’s the same game. Obviously, it’s higher stakes. There’s more eyes watching. The atmosphere is a little crazier but, at the end of the day, you’re trying to remind yourself and trying to focus on being in the moment, being in the present, and not getting consumed with everything around you.”
The difference between the two was made clear and stark by Moustakas’s reaction to hitting his walkout single in the first game. “Being in the postseason a couple of years back really helped, “ he said. “It was an awesome atmosphere in there so the adrenaline was running high. And, like Yelly said, you’re just trying not to do too much, just trying to put the barrel of the bat to the ball.”
And, after his crucial RBI in the second game, Moustakas spoke even more about how important his experiences in Kansas City have been to his performance in Milwaukee. “Obviously, those last couple weeks were a lot of fun and they might have prepared us a little bit more for the postseason. It’s always nice to be able to win the division by 30 games, but this is a strong division. Being able to play that 163rd game and win, that was huge for us. That gave us some exposure to what’s coming.”
Off they go to the high country with what the usual cliche would call a “commanding” 2-0 lead in a best-of-five series — a talented, if somewhat motley Brew Crew that started playing postseason baseball before the regular season was over, and bringing joy to every tete de fromage on the shores of the big lake.