By Adam Hatlan
The Milwaukee Brewers are heating up at just the right time.
The Brewers – now at 83-62 – sit just one game back of the first-place Cubs in the NL Central after beating the Cubs, 3-2, in the first game of a crucial three-game series at Wrigley Field.
The Brewers are 8-2 in their last 10 games and have now won four straight. The Cubs, on the other hand, are headed in the other direction, now losers of three straight. They have lost three of their last four to the Crew over the past week after holding a four-and-a-half game lead over the Brewers just as recently as…September 6.
Here’s five reasons why I – a Cubs fan – think the Brewers are going to end up sneaking into first and earning this division, contradicting my very prediction I made at the all-star break when I said the Brewers had seen the last of first-place for the season:
- Christian Yelich – Yelich has been the hottest hitter in the NL since the all-star break and has firmly put himself into the running for NL MVP consideration. Since the all-star break, Yelich is hitting .354, has 68 hits (1st NL, 1st MLB), has 17 home runs (2nd NL, 3rd MLB), 43 RBI (1st NL, 2nd MLB), and his .719 slugging percentage is tops in all of baseball. A guy that hot can carry a team and make others around him better, and Yelich is definitely a guy who is carrying his team right now. What an addition he has been to the Brewer lineup this year, and he’s showing it at the most important time of the season.
- Lorenzo Cain – Cain is in his second season with the Crew, returning to Milwaukee after playing in Kansas City since 2011. What an addition he has been. Cain has been an absolute perfect table-setter at the lead-off spot, going 4-for-5 on Monday night and raising his average to .311 with an OBP of .403 – good for second in the NL. Cain now sports to the fourth-best batting average in the NL to go with Yelich’s second-best. Cain’s 6.1 WAR is also tops in the NL. Having that one-two punch at the top provides great consistency for manager Craig Counsell.
- Brewers Lineup >>>> Cubs Lineup – Counsell has the luxury of having two of the best players at getting on base at the top of his lineup. But it doesn’t get any easier on opposing pitchers after facing Yelich and Cain, though. Travis Shaw, Jesus Aguilar, Mike Moustakas, and Jonathan Schoop all have 20+ home runs this year (as does Yelich). Add Ryan Braun, Eric Thames, and veteran Curtis Granderson to the mix? Pretty solid lineup. The Cubs have their own MVP candidate in Javier Baez, but have just three players with 20+ homers (Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Baez). And here’s an interesting and very telling stat: The Cubs are the top-scoring offense and have the number-one team batting average in the NL. Say what? What’s the problem then? Well, they rank dead last IN ALL OF BASEBALL in two crucial categories: leaving runners on base and leaving runners in scoring position. The Cubs are averaging a whopping 7.64 runners left on per game, and averaging 3.84 runners left in scoring position per game. After Monday’s loss, the Cubs are now 22-23 in one-run games. All those stranded runners in scoring position could have meant a lot more potential wins for the Cubs throughout the course of the season.
- Jon Lester injury – Jon Lester has been the top pitcher for the Cubs in 2018, falling to 15-6 after Monday’s loss the the Crew. Lester left the game with an apparent back injury, leaving the Cubs rotation with Jose Quintana (shaky nearly every start), Kyle Hendricks (flashes of brilliance, but implodes in pressure situations), and Cole Hamels (right now one of the best pitchers in all of baseball). Mike Montgomery gets hit nearly every time out. If Lester has to miss any time (which it’s unclear at this point), the Cubs’ already shaky starting staff could be doomed, which could cause an even greater free-fall for the Cubs.
- Josh Hader >>>> Any Cubs Reliever Right Now – Josh Hader faced six batters against the Cubs on Monday night. Josh Hader struck out six batters against the Cubs on Monday night. Hader continued his dominance out of the bullpen for the Brewers, raising his strikeout total to 127 in just 73.2 innings. That’s a strikeout-per-nine innings average of 15.2, easily tops in the NL for qualified relievers, and fourth in MLB. Hader is an absolute weapon out of the ‘pen for Counsell and is exactly the type of shut-down pitcher who can carry a team into and throughout the playoffs. The Cubs still have the second-best ERA for relievers in the NL, but wear-and-tear has become blatantly obvious over the past few weeks. This bullpen group is tired. Joe Maddon LOVES using his bullpen by the way- and has had to more than he would like this year due to ineffective starting pitching. It has shown lately, with relievers putting themselves into high pressure situations nearly every game. For example, Carl Edwards has been struggling of late and came in to relieve Lester after Lester was removed with the back injury. On the very first pitch, Edwards threw a breaking ball in the dirt that bounced to the back stop, allowing the eventual winning run to score from third. The stagnant Cubs offense versus the powerful Hader couldn’t get anything started, followed by fellow bullpen stud Jeremy Jeffress locking it down in the ninth. Game. Over.
Who knows what shakes out over the next few weeks? Maybe the Cubs offense figures it out and they get hot and go on a run. They did go 15-5 over their final 20 games last year to finish strong and win the division. After watching the game on Monday, the Brewers just look hungrier. Like a team with something to prove. A team playing very loose and very hot right now.
The Cubs? They look flat. Stagnant. Tired. And they should look tired. They haven’t had a scheduled day off since August 20th. Their next scheduled day off? September 20. Playing that much can damage the psyche of a team, and can allow a team like the Brewers to slip into first place.
I still think the Cubs will make the playoffs as the wild-card team, and I still think the two wild-cards will come out of the Central, meaning the Cubs would face the Cardinals in the one-game playoff. The Cubs win that – especially if they send Hamels to the mound – to set up a likely first-round series against…the Brewers.
Now that, folks, would make for some entertaining baseball.