How is this happening?

I haven’t commented on the Brewers recently because I was waiting for them to collapse.

After all, a team with mediocre pitching by old (4.39 earned run average, which is 16th in the 30-team Major League Baseball) or new measure (1.32 WHIP — Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched) will be only playing out the string in September. Mediocre pitching certainly isn’t enough to overcome mediocre hitting, with the Brewers 18th in runs scored.

The Brewers were handicapped by the loss of relief pitcher Corey Knebel at the start of the season, and then lost outfielder Christian Yelich for the season on, of all things, a fractured kneecap from a fouled-off pitch. Add to that management’s refusal to get quality pitching (as in a starting pitcher you’ve heard of) and the struggles of closer Josh Hader, and the apathetic public persona of manager Craig Counsell, and it would be a miracle for this team to even compete for a playoff spot, especially against the much-better-funded Cubs, Cardinals and Mets.

So this makes no sense:

Or it makes about as much sense as the Brewers missing the playoffs by one game in 2017 and getting to one game of the World Series in 2018 with a roster lacking consistent pitching and with too many automatic outs in the lineup.

Maybe David Schoenfeld can explain it:

On Sept. 5, the Milwaukee Brewers lost 10-5 to the Chicago Cubs in the first game of a four-game series in Milwaukee. They were 7½ games behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central with 23 games left and five games behind the Cubs for the second wild-card spot — tied with the New York Mets, with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Philadelphia Phillies ahead of them. Their playoff odds with 23 games remaining, according to Baseball-Reference.com: 3.1%.

Their odds of winning the division? Less than 0.1%. Not less than 1%. Less than one-tenth of 1%.

Here we are, 19 games later, and the Brewers not only have clinched a playoff spot — they did that by beating the Cincinnati Reds 9-2 on Wednesday — but they are just 1½ games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central. Miracle of miracles, after 17 wins in those 19 games, the Brewers now have their sights on a division title. What a story that would be.

Correction: After their 5–3 win over Cincinnati Thursday the Brewers are now one game back of the Cardinals after winning 18 of 20.

Consider some of the most famous September comebacks in baseball history and where those teams stood with 23 games left:

1938 Cubs: 4 GB
1951 Giants: 5 GB
1964 Cardinals: 5 GB
1973 Mets: 5½ GB
1978 Yankees: 3 GB
1995 Mariners: 5½ GB
2007 Phillies: 5 GB (but 7 GB with 17 left!)

The Brewers have a chance at history — and those final three games of the Cubs series early in the month got everything going. Given the Cubs’ lead at the time in the wild-card race, it was the turning point in the season for both clubs.

In the Friday game, Christian Yelich hit a three-run home run off Cole Hamels in the third inning, and Zach Davies and three relievers combined for a three-hitter in a 7-1 victory. On Saturday, the Brewers won 3-2 as Yasmani Grandal tied it with a home run in the eighth and Yelich hit a two-out, walk-off double in the ninth. On Sunday, the Brewers scored five runs in the fourth off Jon Lester — Tyler Austin hit a three-run homer — on the way to an 8-5 victory.

Let the good times roll. Just like that, the Brewers were hot and the Cubs were reeling. Milwaukee went into Miami and swept a four-game series, although Yelich went down for the season in the first inning of the second game when a foul ball cracked his right kneecap. The Brewers lost 10-0 in St. Louis but won the next two games. They beat the San Diego Padres in three of four, swept three from the Pittsburgh Pirates and have now taken the first two from the Reds. The Brewers have scored 103 runs in going 17-2 (5.4 per game) and given up only 53 (2.79 per game). Through Sept. 5, the Brewers ranked 18th in the majors with a 4.65 ERA. Since Sept. 6, they rank first with a 2.54 ERA.

“We had another great September,” Lorenzo Cain said after the game. “Back-to-back years we had great Septembers. We’re back in the dance again and it’s find a way to get to the World Series and win it all.”

Yelich, the possible NL MVP until his injury, was on hand to celebrate. “Everybody stepped up. It’s a true sense of a team,” he said as teammates dumped champagne over his head. “We never really cared what our odds were all year, nobody cares about that. We know what we were capable of as a team. We have a lot of talented players and the guys stepped up huge and did a great job. We managed to string them together when it counted, like we did last year. It was somebody different every night.”

At one point, manager Craig Counsell took the floor and pointed around the entire clubhouse: “Take a look,” he said. “This is what a team looks like.”

One thing Schoenfeld’s piece shows is that win odds are stupid to pay attention to unless you’re interested in losing money in sports betting. They fail to give credence to the human element, in which over a short period of time — say, September in a pennant race — people can exceed what they’re supposedly capable of, or perhaps reach what they’re capable of when they previously didn’t. Or, conversely, underperform, as did the Cubs, who appeared to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of their epic September 1969 collapse with a collapse of their own.

(Statistics of any sort are not predictors. They tell you what happened, and they may give you insight into how and why, but they do not tell you what will happen. If they did, sports would die because no one would watch with preordained outcomes. Except in professional wrestling, apparently.)

There is a possible scenario that I would call crazy were it not for the fact it happened to the Cubs last year. It’s possible that the Cardinals and Brewers could tie for the NL Central title Sunday, forcing a one-game playoff Monday, just as the Brewers and Cubs did last year. The winner of that game would move on to the NL Division Series, while the loser would then have to play Washington in the wild card game.

The problem is that whether as a wild card or as the NL Central champion, the Brewers’ chance of getting to the World Series is less than last year. Even if they win the Central they will not have home field advantage for any series because they would have the worst record of a NL division champion. (Even though their home record isn’t earth-shattering, it’s better than their road record, as is usually the case.) If they tie with Washington in record the Brewers would host the wild card game, but then your season comes down to one game.

Out of the five NL playoff teams, the Brewers have the worst starting pitching (4.49 ERA) and the second worst bullpen ERA (4.28). The worst bullpen ERA belongs to the Nationals, so maybe the Brewers can win the wild card game, but against teams with much better pitching staffs — which would include the Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals — their postseason fate does not look promising. Their September successes have been with expanded rosters, but everyone must play only 25 in the postseason.

Can the Brewers possibly win the World Series for their long-suffering announcer?

I’m betting not. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I wasn’t wrong last year.

 

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