Entering play on September 10, the Milwaukee Brewers found themselves two games back of the Chicago Cubs for the NL Wild Card. Behind them, the Diamondbacks, Phillies, and Mets trailed by no more than a game. It was a precarious situation and one that their Pythagorean record said they were lucky to even hold. If they had played to their .481 expected winning percentage, they would have been sixth in the Wild Card race. To make matters worse, Brandon Woodruff still hadn’t returned from an oblique strain he suffered at the end of July. If that wasn’t bad enough, in the second inning of that game on September 10, Christian Yelich fouled a ball off his right knee, breaking his patella, and ending his season.
On September 10, the Brewers’ playoff hopes died.
On October 1, they’ll play the Washington Nationals in the Wild Card game.
A 14-5 run after the reigning MVP went down (coupled with a 7-12 stretch by the Cubs) kept the Brewers alive and resulted in one of the biggest reversals of fortune we’ve seen in years.
That Milwaukee has made it this far is worth celebrating by itself, but they also have an opportunity to go all the way. To do that, though, they’ll need to get through the Washington Nationals who are uniquely equipped for a winner-take-all game.
The Nationals arguably have the best top three starters in the National League, and only the Astros with Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke edge them out in the American League. Scherzer will get the nod after pitching to a 2.92 ERA and 2.48 DRA in the regular season. In a do or die game, there are few pitchers a team would rather have on the mound than Scherzer, and it just so happens that the Nationals have one of them waiting in wings. Stephen Strasburg will likely take the ball at some point, and with a DRA of 2.13, Strasburg has been even better. If Scherzer and Strasburg can’t hand things off to Sean Doolittle, the Nationals can also turn to Patrick Corbin who finished the season at a 3.09 DRA.
Using your three best starters before a best-of-five divisional series against the Dodgers isn’t ideal, but with the Nationals bullpen, it’s a necessity. The Nationals bullpen ranked 26th in FIP as they churned through 25 different relievers in 2019. Beyond Sean Doolittle and the three-headed monster of Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin, , the Nationals can throw out they can throw out trade deadline pickup Daniel Hudson. He had a fine end to the season striking out 23 batters in 24 innings and allowing just seven runs (four of them earned).
With Fernando Rodney, Hunter Strickland, and Wander Suero at the back of Washington’s ‘pen, the Nationals hold a tenuous pitching advantage. Brandon Woodruff is getting the start for Milwaukee, and on his best days, he can keep pace with anyone. Woodruff, however, won’t be able to go deep into the game. He has only thrown four innings in two outings since returning from the injured list.
The Brewers’ best options out of the bullpen are Drew Pomeranz and Josh Hader. Pomeranz opened the season as one of the worst starters in the majors, but since transitioning to the bullpen full-time (including four relief appearances with the Giants) Pomeranz has 53 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings while walking only nine.
Hader struggled with the longball this year, but he still struck out a majors-leading 47.8 percent of batters he faced. He is no stranger to multiple inning outings (he pitched three innings twice last October), so if the Brewers can take a lead into the seventh or eighth, they might rely on him to take things the rest of the way.
Zach Davies and Adrian Houser pitched in Colorado over the weekend, so they will likely be unavailable, but Milwaukee has Jordan Lyles ready should Woodruff make an early exit. Brent Suter and Freddy Peralta could be used in the middle innings. Peralta’s fastball drives a swing-and-miss repertoire, but walks and homers caught up to him in 2019. Suter is a soft-tossing lefty that hitters haven’t squared up this year.
On offense, the Nationals again hold the advantage. The Brewers are without Christian Yelich, but the Nationals still have their MVP candidate: Anthony Rendon. In a career year, Rendon .319/.412/.598 with 34 homers. Behind him, the Nationals have Juan Soto who repeated the numbers from his historic rookie campaign, but with 12 more homers for good measure. Trea Turner, Howie Kendrick, and Adam Eaton help fill out a roster that ranked eighth in position player fWAR at 25.6.
Yelich’s isn’t the only injury the Brewers are contending with. Ryan Braun is dealing with a minor calf injury, and Lorenzo Cain has a sprained ankle. Video taken by Fox Sports Wisconsin’s Sophia Minnaert didn’t show Cain at 100 percent.
Lorenzo Cain on the field testing his sprained left ankle. pic.twitter.com/af79lLH5k0— Sophia Minnaert (@SophiaMinnaert) September 30, 2019
However, his ankle was bothering him Saturday and he still made this play:
…and this play:
We are NOT worthy of Lorenzo Cain— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) September 29, 2019
The Brewers are the underdogs in the NL Wild Card game, but their season was effectively over a little less than a month ago, and they’re still here. In a one-game playoff, anything can happen.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.