Craig Counsell is about as excitable as your tax guy. When he’s really worked up, the Brewers manager rolls his eyes. Yet he barely contained himself when he was asked about lessons his team learned while finishing behind the Cubs last September.
“Last year?” Counsell asked. “We’ve got a lot of different players this year. It’s a pretty significantly different group.”
That’s putting it mildly.
While it was no surprise that the Cubs pulled away from the Brewers for the NL Central title a year ago, they’re being severely tested this time around.
The Brewers had won 10 of their last 12 games heading into Tuesday night’s game at Wrigley Field to move within a game of the first-place Cubs, and the Brewers believe they have the talent in their clubhouse to do big things in October.
Look no further than the lineup that pulled out a 3-2 victory on Monday, with the winning run scoring on a wild pitch. The top six spots in the lineup featured five players who were All-Stars this season or last; the other was 2011 NL Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun, a six-time All-Star himself.
Credit general manager David Stearns for importing Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Jonathan Schoop and Mike Moustakas in the last year. They’ve given the Brewers a lineup that arguably is as resourceful as any they’ve had since the days when Paul Molitor batted in front of Robin Yount.
During their 10-2 stretch, they scored four or fewer runs six times, showing their comfort when the game is close.
“We got guys on base and we then got big hits at the right time,” said Counsell, a World Series winner as a player with the 1997 Marlins and 2001 Diamondbacks. “As we get deeper into this season, if we get into a playoff scenario and pitching is really good every night, you’re not going to rack up hits. It’s going to be situations like that that are going to win baseball games.”
While Moustakas and Schoop have thunder in their bats, the key to the Brewers’ recent success lies more in the ability of Cain, Yelich – an MVP candidate hitting .315 with 28 homers, 86 RBIs and 98 runs – and Aug. 31 acquisition Curtis Granderson to push pitchers to their breaking points.
Cain was 4-for-5 in the leadoff spot Monday and made the play of the game in center field, taking a great line to rob Jon Lester of a run-scoring double. He sets the tone, just as he did for the Royals when they won the 2015 World Series.
“We [just] went through a homestand where we didn’t score a lot of runs, we didn’t hit a lot, but we won games because offensively in the tough at-bats, in the tough innings, we got on base,’’ Counsell said. “That is what Lorenzo has brought to this team, that style of an at-bat.’’
Since moving to his fourth team in 2 years, the 37-year-old Granderson has had only 12 plate appearances in seven games. He’s walked in five of them and hit one home run, scoring five runs.
“There’s been walks in there, there’s been deep counts,’’ Counsell said. “Those are exactly the at-bats he’s had, and it’s noticed. When a guy like Curtis Granderson comes to your clubhouse, everybody’s eyes go to a guy like that.’’
The Brewers bullpen has bounced back from some midseason problems to emerge as a major advantage over the Cubs.
Josh Hader made that point abundantly clear when he struck out all six Cubs who came to bat in the seventh and eighth innings before turning the ninth over to Jeremy Jeffress. The Brewers bullpen has a 1.59 ERA over the last six games, with 36 strikeouts and five walks in 22 2/3 innings.
Jeffress was closing because Corey Knebel needed the night off. He’s thrown five perfect innings since he returned from a demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs on Sept. 2, providing the kind of lift Joe Maddon would love to get from one of his relievers.
The NL Central has itself a race, and it has gotten a lot tighter than the Cubs wanted it to be.
Cubs 3, Brewers 0: Chicago recorded a three-hit shutout at Wrigley Field to increase its lead to two games in the NL Central.
Cubs starting pitcher Jose Quintana earned the win, going 6 2/3 innings and striking out seven. Relievers Justin Wilson, Jorge De La Rosa and Pedro Strop did not allow a hit.
Ben Zobrist scored in the second inning on a throwing error by Brewers starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin, and Victor Caratini drove in Javier Baez with an RBI single.
Caratini’s double in the seventh scored Tommy La Stella.
Cardinals 11, Pirates 1, 9th inn: St. Louis slugger Tyler O’Neill crushed a three-run home run in the eighth, part of a six-run inning at Busch Stadium.
The game ended after SVM’s deadline.
Marcell Ozuna’s double in the first inning scored Matt Carpenter and Jose Martinez. Ozuna added a sacrifice fly in the eighth.
Miles Mikolas tossed seven strong innings for St. Louis. The right-hander stuck out seven and allowed just five hits and one run.