With just over 10 days to go until the end of the 2019 MLB regular season, the narrative in the National League Central division seems to be a fight to the death between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.
The two bitter rivals have seven games in hand against one another, starting with a four-game set at Wrigley Field that begins on Thursday night. Similarly, there has been a sense that the division could come down to the final weekend, when the teams will square off at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Yet for all of the hype surrounding the race to finish between the Cubs and Redbirds, the Milwaukee Brewers have the opportunity to steal the division out from underneath their two rivals.
Perhaps the Brewers have been written off due to the loss of MVP candidate Christian Yelich. After all, Yelich was the driving force in Milwaukee’s offense and one of the best players in all of baseball. Or maybe reporters and analysts are still skeptical of this Brewers rotation.
Regardless, Milwaukee could care less about outside noise. Prior to Wednesday night’s loss to the San Diego Padres, the Brewers had won 11 of their last twelve games, roaring back into the playoff picture and giving themselves a chance to win back-to-back NL Central titles.
In fact, the Brewers are on the cusp of a historic upset.
No Yelich, no problem?
Since the Brewers lost Yelich to a gruesome broken kneecap on Sept. 10, they have gone 7-2, including a series victory over the Cardinals.
Milwaukee has found a number of heroes on a nightly basis. In the series finale against the Cardinals, Ryan Braun hit a go-ahead grand slam to deliver a crucial victory to the Brew Crew. Just two days later, Mike Moustakas hit a go-ahead homer off of Matt Strahm in San Diego.
It goes without saying that you cannot replace someone like Christian Yelich in the lineup. After all, Yelich led the league in OPS at the time of the injury while posting the second-highest wRC+ value. For good measure, Yelich also proved to be a menace on the bases, swiping 30 bases.
However, the Brewers are getting healthier at just the right time. Moustakas had missed time at the end of August and beginning of September due to injury, but he has the opportunity to pick up some of the offensive slack after struggling to start this month. Similarly, rookie infielder Keston Hiura made his return to the lineup after two weeks on the IL, and has reached base in each of the last three games.
Meanwhile, Yasmani Grandal has already hit six homers in September and has been one of the most reliable hitters in high-leverage situations.
Even if the Brewers get just marginal contributions from Braun, Eric Thames and Lorenzo Cain down the stretch–though Cain’s status could be up in the air after leaving Thursday’s game due to discomfort in his leg–that could make all the difference for a team that can no longer rely on Yelich in the middle of the lineup.
Wait, they can pitch?
Milwaukee has actually had a respectable starting rotation in recent weeks. Brewers starters rank 13th in fWAR since the beginning of September, but they actually rank seventh in ERA.
Zach Davies has dominated opposing hitters, posting a 3.14 ERA in his last three starts. Thought the likes of Gio Gonzalez and Adrian Houser cannot necessarily go deep into games, both have been more reliable arms that can still eat innings and pitch effectively. The same can be said for Chase Anderson, who–if nothing else–has been solid in his last three outings.
Not to mention, Jordan Lyles has a 2.45 ERA since the beginning of August.
Most importantly, Brandon Woodruff has returned just in time to ramp up his activity. In his first appearance since July 17, Woodruff threw two scoreless innings and struck out four against the Padres on Sept. 17.
Woodruff’s presence at the top of the rotation could do wonders to galvanize the rest of the pitching staff and, eventually, save some work on behalf of the bullpen. Woodruff is an innings eater. So long as he is healthy, he almost certainly will be trying to pitch into the later innings.
One underrated component of Milwaukee’s mid-season struggles was a bullpen that looked utterly overworked, but those issues also appear to have been resolved. Brewers relievers rank third in the majors in fWAR since the beginning of September while ranking fifth in ERA.
After a brutal August, Josh Hader has been lights-out in September. Entering play on Thursday night, Hader had a 2.08 ERA and 18.7 K/9 in 8 2/3 innings of work in September while holding opposing hitters to a .312 OPS.
Though he has had some tenuous moments this month, Junior Guerra has been superb in the second half. Drew Pomeranz has been the ideal lefty specialist, and Brent Suter has dominated since being called up to the bigs.
Easiest path to victory
While the Cubs and Cardinals will be duking it out against one another over seven of the final ten games, the Brewers have an opportunity to gain ground on both teams.
Milwaukee took three of four from the San Diego Padres after winning on Thursday afternoon. They finish out the season with three-game sets against the Pirates, Reds and Rockies, respectively. The Brewers are 12-4 against the Pirates this season and .500 against both Cincinnati and Colorado.
Should Milwaukee win eight of their remaining ten games, there is absolutely a chance that they could emerge as the champions of the NL Central.
So while all eyes will be on the Cubs and the Cardinals, keep an eye out for those pesky Brewers.