Sometimes, baseball just baseballs.
What happens can't be explained analytically or even logically (though maybe mystically?).
Such was the case with the Milwaukee Brewers, barely gripping playoff hopes as thin as barley.
On September 5, per the stat site FanGraphs, the Brewers had a 5.6 percent chance of making the playoffs. They won five straight, providing some hope, until it was shattered along with Christian Yelich's kneecap on September 10. Yelich's offensive wins above replacement (WAR) this year is 7.8 on FanGraphs. To put that in perspective, Kolten Wong and Paul DeJong have a 7.7 WAR combined. The Brewers lost their best offensive player, who was also the league's best offensive player. And it's not like they had great pitching or something. But and counting their win that night, the Brewers have won 11 of their past 13 games. Their playoff odds are now 97.1 percent.
It would take a failure as improbable as their ascent for the Brewers to miss out on October.
The Cardinals' September story has been special, but what the Brewers are doing is spellbinding. The Cardinals — it appears — are just far enough ahead to stave off Milwaukee for the division title. But the Brewers will likely make the Wild Card Game. And with what the Brewers are brewing, it's as if they're affected by something bigger than any analytic.
"When you get your back against the wall, you know you have to be darn-near perfect, and when that's what you achieve, that's to be commended," manager Craig Counsell told reporters covering the team. "We've done it a little differently. Guys have made sacrifices on that end. They've done more in some places when they've had to. … We were dealt a 'gut punch' with 'Yeli' and they still handled it. You can't say enough about what they're accomplishing right now.”
You could just tell something was stirring that first night without Yelich. Ryan Braun wore Yelich's jersey under his — the ribbed sleeves peeked out over his elbows — in efforts to keep Yelich's energy within the team. That night was also veteran Mike Moustakas' birthday. He had been dealing with a bone bruise — he had only started once since Aug. 26. But “Moose” returned to the lineup — and took over Yelich's spot in the lineup. And homered. And then, homered again. The second homer was in the ninth inning. It was a 5-5 game at Miami. He clobbered the ball to Jupiter (town or planet, take your pick). Per STATS, Moustakas was the first National League infielder with five or more RBIs on his birthday since Bill Mazeroski in 1966 — any mention of Mazeroski this time of year seems to whir autumn winds.
The Brewers won that game — and then took two of three in St. Louis, including the “John Gant Game.” That Sunday, the Cardinals reliever walked the bases loaded in the ninth inning … and reliever Junior Fernandez allowed a grand slam to Braun. It was a devastating and deflating loss for the Cardinals. They made up for it, of course, with their historic four-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field. But at the time, with the Nationals' starters looming, it was fair to wonder if that would be the loss that ruined St. Louis' season.
For Milwaukee's Brewers, it was the win that kept their dream spinning. And to their credit, those three Brewers batters had to earn the walks against Gant. Regardless, after that game, Milwaukee won three of the next four against San Diego. And then all three against Pittsburgh.
The Brewers didn't play Monday — their first rest day in 18 days — and have three games at Cincinnati and three at Colorado. Both teams are woefully out of the playoff race. Will the Brewers ever lose again? Will their next home game be Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers? Or the home opener of 2020? It's easy to just throw out a prediction, because all good things come to an end, but this Brewers team is defying predictions by playing team baseball. Sacrificing, like the Cards do.
Besides Yelich, they don't have any other dominant offensive players. And even the ones they have are battling injuries. And the starting staff isn't even a staff — Counsell has been “bullpenning” brilliantly with relievers as starters … and even starters as relievers. Gio Gonzalez, a 10-year veteran, agreed to come out of the pen on Sunday. He pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings in the 4-3 win against the Pirates.
Yes, the Brewers are playing bad baseball teams right now. But a Brewers team without Yelich doesn't strike fear like, say, the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers did.
In a meeting with reporters, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio shared the story about what happened after the Yelich injury. He personally flew in his jet to Miami, where the injury happened, to pick up Yelich.
"I think what had happened is it felt like the dream had died for this season," the owner said. "And, now, it hasn't. The strength of the organization has shown through here. … I actually thought this group could pull together and do it. Right around the end of August, when some of the minor-league guys came up and some back from injury, that Sunday, if you go back and look at the video tape, everybody's on the top step of the dugout. It was a great demeanor for the last game against the Cubs (at Wrigley Field).
"That was some real spirit there. I thought it could carry us again. It's carried us farther than we thought, but humans can do great things when they pull together and work together. You can see it here in baseball.”