Opinion: Against all odds, the Brewers' Boys of September kept pushing to earn a playoff berth

USA Today Sports 1 month ago

CINCINNATI – The Boys of September have done it again.

For the second consecutive season, the Milwaukee Brewers saved their best ball for the final month, with dramatic results. A 9-2 victory Wednesday night against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park dropped their magic number to zero, assuring at least a berth in the National League Wild Card Game next Tuesday against Washington.

And the Brewers haven’t given up on defending their NL Central crown just yet. With St. Louis losing a second consecutive game in Arizona, the door is open for the Brewers to pull within one game of the Cardinals on Thursday with another victory against the Reds, leaving three games to play.

As the surprising and resilient Brewers have shown us, never count them out.

The victory gave the Brewers a 19-4 record in this September to remember, best in the major leagues, continuing a spurt that no one saw coming. It was their sixth victory in a row and 17th in 19 games, by far their hottest stretch of the season. 

Yet another September surge assured the Brewers their second consecutive playoff berth, something they had accomplished only once previously, in 1981-82. And the first of those two seasons was a strike-split campaign, with Milwaukee winning the second half.

Consider that on Sept. 5, after losing a home game, 10-5, to Chicago, the Brewers were five games behind the Cubs for the second wild-card berth, and 7½ games behind Washington for the first spot. The thought at that point was that the Brewers would have to win almost every remaining game to have any chance at October baseball.

And darn if they didn’t go out and do it. And for the last two weeks, they’ve done it without reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich, lost with a broken kneecap in a game in Miami. When that happened, pundits lined up to throw shovels of dirt on the Brewers’ playoff chances.

Instead of calling it a season, the Brewers pulled together, kept their heads down and continued to play hard. The pitching staff, which had not distinguished itself over the first five months, picked up the slack in a big way as manager Craig Counsell used an expanded roster to go early and often to an army of arms in the bullpen.

There was no way to see this coming. Anyone who says they knew the Brewers would go on a 17-2 blitz is the person you want to buy your next lottery ticket. That kind of optimism is contagious.

This is like finding an extra present under the tree the day after Christmas. Like finding a $100 bill under your sofa cushion. Like finding yourself in your late Uncle Fred’s will when you didn’t know you had an Uncle Fred. As Brewers slugger Boomer Scott once said about such an unexpected bonus, “It’s gravy on the cake.”

Asked before the clincher if he could have envisioned such an about-face three weeks earlier, Counsell admitted, “Obviously, you could say ‘no’ for sure. That’s why you just take it one day at a time and do your job every single day, because the next day brings a new challenge, a new goal.

“It doesn’t do us any good to make it a big thing like that. It does us good to take care of today’s business at hand, to accomplish the things we need to in our game plan, with rest and with those things, and be good at those things. If you keep doing that every day, it’s like stacking good things on top of each other and the end result is hopefully pretty good.”

More than pretty good. Beyond Counsell’s deft handling of an expanded pitching staff, the players have displayed remarkable mental toughness for the second consecutive September. It’s easy to throw up your hands and say, ‘We can’t do this,’ when faced by significant deficits in the standings with time dwindling.

It would have been particularly easy for the Brewers to run up the white flag when Yelich was lost in such a freakish manner, fouling a pitch off his knee. Baseball players just don’t break kneecaps in that fashion. You can look it up.

The Brewers already had been dealt many cruel blows. Elite late-inning closer Corey Knebel was lost for the year in spring training when he blew out his elbow. Fellow relief ace Jeremy Jeffress began the year on the injured list with a shoulder issue and never caught up, eventually getting released with a month to go.

Sluggers Travis Shaw and Jesús Aguilar fell into season-long slumps and never came out of them, with Aguilar eventually traded away. Jhoulys Chacín went from the most successful starting pitcher on the 2018 division champs to a perpetual loser (3-10, 5.79 ERA) and also was cut.

Young right-hander Brandon Woodruff, who had emerged as the staff ace, was lost for two months to a strained oblique in late July and even now is available only in limited duty. Rookie hitting savant Keston Hiura was sidelined for more than two weeks at the outset of this month with a hamstring strain. Veteran run-producer Mike Moustakas couldn’t swing a bat for about the same period of time because of a badly bruised hand.

Outfielders Ryan Braun (lower back), who got the clinching rout of the Reds started with a first-inning grand slam, and Lorenzo Cain (knee, ankle) have been hobbled but wouldn't beg out of the lineup. The Brewers are long on character and determination, and short on excuses. While other supposed contenderste folded in September like lawn chairs, the Brewers kept finding ways to win, against all odds.

“It’s a credit to the players,” Counsell said. “They’ve done a tremendous job with it and I think they’ve enjoyed it. That’s a credit to them because they’ve enjoyed the intensity of it. It’s not easy, mentally as much as anything, to make every game this meaningful and to push yourself this hard, for this long.

“We’ve asked for a lot of sacrifice. Something that guys aren’t accustomed to, something different. It doesn’t always make sense right away but if the group is strong, you have a better chance of that happening. The group is connected and strong, and believes in themselves.”


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