ST. LOUIS – The Milwaukee Brewers’ rebuilding project, which for all intents and purposes ended last season, officially was laid to rest Wednesday night.
Holding on for a tense 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals that completed a three-game sweep at Busch Stadium, the hard-charging Brewers assured their first playoff berth since winning the NL Central title in 2011.
The nail-biter boosted the Brewers’ record to 16-7 in September and 22-9 in their last 31 games.
The Brewers celebrated with champagne in the clubhouse afterward but weren’t satisfied with merely clinching a spot in the NL wild-card game. They remained a half-game behind first-place Chicago in the division, after the Cubs defeated the Pirates, 7-6 in 10 innings.
The Brewers will take Thursday off while the Cubs, who also clinched a playoff berth with the St. Louis loss, finish a four-game series at home against Pittsburgh. The Brewers finish the season with a weekend series at Miller Park against woeful Detroit while Chicago finishes at home against the Cardinals.
BOX SCORE: Brewers 2, Cardinals 1
PLAYOFFS: Brewers would host wild-card game
The Brewers benefited from a crazy, fluke play in the eighth inning that prevented St. Louis from scoring the tying run. With pinch-runner Adolis Garcia on first base and two down, Jose Martinez hit a tapper toward third base that Mike Moustakas fielded and fired past first base for an error.
Garcia rounded third base and would have scored but stumbled and fell to the ground. Second baseman Hernan Perez retrieved the ball in foul territory and threw to catcher Erik Kratz, who at first fanned on a blind sweep tag but then got the distraught Garcia for the out.
After watching Christian Yelich tear them apart with a three-run homer and three-run triple the previous evening, the Cardinals decided not to pitch to him in the series finale. They walked him five times, giving him nothing to hit, but he came around twice to score runs as a result.
Yelich walked with one down in the third inning off starter John Gant and raced to third on Jesús Aguilar’s single to left-center. Travis Shaw followed with a single to right, giving the Brewers a 1-0 lead.
Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacín was sharp out of the chute, retiring the first nine hitters he faced. That spell ended when Matt Carpenter walked to lead off the bottom of the fourth and with one down Paul DeJong ripped a smash past Moustakas for a double.
A walk to Marcell Ozuna loaded the bases, setting up a sacrifice fly by Jedd Gyorko that tied the score, 1-1. That was the only run the Cardinals managed in five innings off Chacín, who allowed just one hit and two walks while striking out three.
Cards lefty Chasen Shreve was summoned to face Yelich in the fifth with one down and walked him before exiting. Dakota Hudson took over and retired Aguilar on a tapper in front of the plate but Shaw dumped an opposite-field single into shallow left for another RBI that put the Brewers on top, 2-1.
St. Louis had an opportunity to draw even in the sixth when leftfielder Ryan Braun muffed a one-out drive by Martínez for a two-base error. Reliever Corbin Burnes then hit DeJong with a pitch but Ozuna hit a liner to Shaw at second base and Martínez was doubled off to keep the score at 2-1.
FOCUSING ON TASK AT HAND: With two divisions up for grabs as well as the two wild-card spots, there was a lot of chatter about the many different playoff possibilities. Manager Craig Counsell said the best approach was the one his team had taken all year – win tonight’s game: “We’re worried about what’s going on out on the field. You worry about your process and doing what it takes to be successful. That’s the place we want to be in. That’s not going to change. That’s how these guys got here in the first place.”
DON’T HOLD BACK: As for the intensity and emotions that are part of games every night with so much at stake, Counsell said there was no reason to bottle that in: “This is the fun part. You work hard to be a part of these games. There’s nothing wrong with having emotions. That’s a good thing. You want emotions to be involved. You want to feel it. You want to soak it all in. That’s what we’ve done the last week. The games have been fun. You’re kind of on the edge of your seat.”
IT’S A PARTICIPATION SPORT: With expanded rosters in September, every team is playing with more players than in the first five months. That doesn’t mean the extras will always make an impact but Counsell said he has been pleased with how many different players have made contributions down the stretch: “We’ve had a ton of guys contribute over this road trip. It’s really been a thing I feel best about is how many guys have contributed in September. Obviously, Christian and Lorenzo are leading the way but a lot of players have played a part in this good month.”
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: Ever wonder why Cain is so good at dumping base hits into open spaces and sneaking grounders through the infield where no one is playing? Because he practices it in pre-game BP. While others are swinging away, Cain is trying to put balls where he wants them. “Lorenzo is a really different hitter,” Counsell said. “In today’s age of exit velocity being a key measurement, he has incredible hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills. Yesterday, he put like four balls in one round (of BP) to the same place on the field. It was uncanny. He does it in the game. It’s a really unique way to hit but it’s born out of a tremendous amount of skill.”
BURNES COMES THROUGH AGAIN: Burnes, a starter in the minor leagues, evolved into a key figure in the Brewers’ bullpen after being summoned from Class AAA Colorado Springs. With another 1 1/3 innings of scoreless ball, he lowered his ERA to 2.50 in 29 appearances.
This year: 92-67
Last year: 84-75
Thursday: Off day.
Friday: Tigers at Brewers, 7:10 p.m. Milwaukee RHP Zach Davies (2-7, 4.65) vs. Detroit RHP Jordan Zimmermann (7-8, 4.31). TV: FS Wisconsin. Radio: AM-620.