The Brewers’ M.V.P. Falls, but the Team Keeps Soaring
CINCINNATI — When Christian Yelich crumpled to the dirt in Miami on Sept. 10, his kneecap shattered and his season over, Milwaukee Brewers Manager Craig Counsell used Trent Grisham to complete the at-bat. Grisham finished the strikeout, which went on Yelich’s record and froze his season average at .329.
That was even better than Yelich’s average last season, when he was named the most valuable player of the National League and led the Brewers deep into October. Grisham, a 22-year-old outfielder, watched that playoff run from the Arizona Fall League, where he was playing for the Peoria Javelinas.
Second baseman Keston Hiura, 23, was a teammate there. Neither had played above Class AA, but they were both former first-round draft picks, deeply invested in the future of the organization. They knew where they wanted to be.
“You wanted to be in that dugout,” Hiura said on Tuesday at Great American Ball Park. “You could see that vibe coming through the television screen. Being here now and experiencing it firsthand, you feel that same atmosphere, the energy that radiates off everyone.”
The Brewers are doing it again, without Yelich but with Grisham and Hiura playing pivotal roles. Grisham led off against the Reds on Tuesday and Hiura batted cleanup, with another playoff berth in sight.
The Brewers won on the night of Yelich’s injury, and have taken 11 of 13 games since, including a 4-2 victory over the Reds on Tuesday. That streak, combined with the Chicago Cubs’ free fall, put them five games ahead of the Cubs for a wild-card spot with five to play. The Brewers were also three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the N.L. Central, before the Cardinals played in Arizona late Tuesday.
“Last year was kind of addicting,” first baseman Eric Thames said. “It was a high. The fans were so loud, the stadium was shaking. It was a feeling you can’t ever dream up until you’re actually in it. Now we have that taste, and we want to get back to that.”
The Brewers (87-70) are 18-4 in September after going 19-7 for the month last season, before a one-game playoff victory in Chicago on Oct. 1 to win the N.L. Central title. This time, the Brewers are on track to visit Washington next Tuesday for the N.L. wild card game.
But a home game at Miller Park is still possible, and the veterans have told the rookies what to expect.
“They say it’s unbelievable,” Grisham said. “They close all the windows and the roof, get it as loud as they can in there. I’ve seen it firsthand how good the fans are. To imagine that in a playoff atmosphere, it’s awesome.”
The Brewers went 4-2 at home last October, but they have never played in the World Series at Miller Park, their home since 2001. They fell one game short last season, losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the N.L. Championship Series. They still have not won a pennant since 1982, but General Manager David Stearns said the near miss had invigorated him.
“For me, that’s the fun part of this whole thing — you get to build it back,” he said. “Good or bad, you get to run it again. So when you suffer a tough loss and you don’t quite reach that pinnacle, you can immediately look forward to what you can do to work toward, ultimately, getting to that stage.”
While the Brewers had a club-record payroll on opening day — more than $120 million — they made just one major addition: catcher Yasmani Grandal, who signed for one year and $18.25 million. Grandal has responded with 27 home runs and, somewhat incredibly, became the first Brewer ever to collect 100 non-intentional walks.
He has also helped Stearns’s biggest July acquisition, starter Jordan Lyles, thrive after a trade from Pittsburgh. Lyles came cheaply, after a 15.00 earned run average in his last four starts for the Pirates.
“I didn’t make it out of the first inning one time,” Lyles said. “It was as bad as it gets. We kind of got off that roller coaster and settled down, and a lot has to do with Yasmani, just trusting in him, letting him control the game.”
Lyles is 6-1 with a 2.35 E.R.A. in 10 starts for the Brewers, who again are using the expanded September roster to reimagine pitching roles. Though Counsell will not have that same advantage next year (rosters will be capped at 28 next September) for now he is leaning on a deep stable of arms as he aggressively seeks the best matchups.
The left-hander Brent Suter has made a strong return from Tommy John surgery, and another lefty, Drew Pomeranz, has also been dominant. Pomeranz had a 6.10 E.R.A. in 17 starts for the San Francisco Giants this season, but looked good in a few relief outings before Stearns traded for him.
“I’ve done it before, but it’s a little different mind-set this time,” Pomeranz said. “I’m just throwing everything as hard as I can.”
Shorter outings for starters have allowed them to throw harder, especially Chase Anderson. Closer Josh Hader, meanwhile, is averaging 16.45 strikeouts per nine innings, the most ever for a pitcher with at least 70 innings in a season.
A soft September schedule has helped the Brewers, to be sure, but they played just well enough before this month to be in position to take advantage.
“I don’t know, we show up with a chip on our shoulder and we end up winning every day,” said Grisham, who has hit .288 in September. “Just being a small market, losing our M.V.P., not having big names on the pitching staff, doing it with guys all over the roster who no one’s ever heard of before. It’s just ingrained in us.”
By the time of Yelich’s injury, the Brewers had already shown resilience. Five significant players from last season were injured or unproductive: Pitchers Jhoulys Chacin and Jeremy Jeffress were released; first baseman Jesus Aguilar was traded, and pitcher Corey Knebel had Tommy John surgery. Infielder Travis Shaw remains, but he is hitting .157.
Hiura (who had a .932 on-base plus slugging percentage before Tuesday) and Grisham have helped. So has Thames, who was left off the playoff roster last fall after Aguilar surged but has reclaimed the first base spot. Ryan Braun won a game in St. Louis this month with a two-out grand slam in the ninth, and Mike Moustakas has hit 35 homers to lead the active roster.
“After the game I’m talking about a lot of our players,” Counsell said. “That means a lot of guys have done good things for us. But we miss Christian every day. We’re not a better team without him. The guy who’s played for him, Grisham, has had a fabulous month. That’s probably mitigated a lot of it.”
Other teams have withstood a severe September injury: The 1975 Boston Red Sox lost Jim Rice and the 1987 St. Louis Cardinals lost Jack Clark, and both teams made it to Game 7 of the World Series before losing.
The modern playoff format is more treacherous, of course, and while Counsell is a student of baseball history — his father worked for the 1982 Brewers — he has not searched for hopeful examples. These Brewers do things their way, and history does not apply.
“You see it as you’ve got a game in front of us, why can’t we win this one?” Counsell said. “Why can’t we win the next one? If we play well, we can win them.”
If the Brewers keep playing this well without their M.V.P., they could be an imposing — and intriguing — October team.
Tyler Kepner has been national baseball writer since 2010. He joined The Times in 2000 and covered the Mets for two seasons, then covered the Yankees from 2002 to 2009. @TylerKepner
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