Sports lay everything on the line for us. We watch for the entertainment and athleticism, but also for the pure show of emotions. Season after season, the cycle ends with elation for one team and varying degrees of heartbreak for the rest.
But there is a sweet spot — rooting for a team that has no expectations despite being in the mix. The Milwaukee Brewers are sitting firmly in that spot heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
After a fast start, the defending National League Central champion Brewers spent most of the regular season deconstructing their expectations. It officially became football season in Wisconsin when the Brewers suffered a 10-5 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 5 to fall five games back of the Cubs for the second NL wild card spot with 23 games to play.
But the Brewers themselves weren’t ready to flip that switch, winning the final three games of the Cubs series before winning two straight against Miami to pull within 1.5 games of the second wild card.
Then came a move familiar to Wisconsin sports fans. Right when you completely buy in for the postseason chase, you’re reminded not to put too much stock into it. For the 2019 Brewers, that reminder came Tuesday night, when reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich fractured his kneecap with a foul ball, and injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season.
The Brewers still weren’t done, winning the final two games of the Marlins series to win a season-best seven straight games and tie the Cubs for the last playoff position. They picked up five games on the Cubs in less than a week, moving 10 games above .500 for the first time since they were 39-29 after beating Houston in 14 innings June 9.
They hit a snag Friday night, as the Cubs eased to a 17-8 win over the Pirates at Wrigley Field and the Brewers lost 10-0 to the Cardinals in St. Louis.
Still, at 78-69 and one game back of the Cubs, the Brewers are about where they were expected to be when the season started in March — albeit with a much different roster. How are the Brewers staying in the playoff race despite limited contributions from 2018 standouts Jesus Aguilar, Jhoulys Chacin, Jeremy Jeffress and Travis Shaw — two of whom have been cut and one traded — and injuries to key players like Yelich, Brandon Woodruff, Keston Hiura, Mike Moustakas, Corey Knebel, Jimmy Nelson and Zach Davies?
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Because they’ve done this before. Their record was much better when they started their run in 2018, but they still rallied to win 28 of their final 38 games, including the last eight, to win a team-record 96 games and earn their first playoff berth since 2011.
Most of the players are different this year, but the memory is still fresh. That goes a long way in sports. Once a team figures out how to win and that mindset permeates the organization, they typically keep winning.
The Brewers will need to carry that mindset forward if they’re going to continue winning without traditional starting pitching or Yelich in the middle of the lineup.
The path is there, as the Brewers’ remaining 16-game schedule is very navigable. After visiting the Cardinals this weekend, then play home series against San Diego and Pittsburgh before visiting Cincinnati and Colorado.
The Brewers are 7-9 against the Cardinals so far this season, while they are 12-4 against the Pirates, 0-3 against the Padres, 8-8 against the Reds and 2-2 against the Rockies. However, four of the five teams have nothing left to play for, as Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are bringing up the rear in the NL Central, and San Diego and Colorado are fourth and fifth in the NL West. The only NL team with a worse record than the four teams the Brewers close out the season against? The Marlins, whom the Brewers just swept in four games.
Furthermore, as owners of a tiebreaker on the rest of the potential wild card teams, the Brewers would be hosting a tiebreaking Game 163 if it came down to that.
If they can avoid being swept by the Cardinals this weekend, the Brewers have more than a fighting chance at reaching the postseason. Getting through it is another thing, and is why they’re playing with house money over the final two weeks of the season. Although Woodruff and Hiura are on the cusp of returning to action, Milwaukee’s chance of being a true World Series contender is pretty much shot. The arms aren’t there and the bats haven’t shown any kind of consistency.
But consistency isn’t crucial in the short term. The Brewers have shown over the long haul that they’re the epitome of a .500 team, but anything can happen over a relatively short 16-game run. It should be fun to watch.