Winning the National League Central Division Pennant almost seemed like a forgone conclusion for some overzealous Brewers fans before the All-Star break. Their team led the struggling Chicago Cubs by as much as 5.5 games, and Milwaukee’s offense looked unstoppable for much of the first half. The Brewers even started the second half with a 9-6 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, and went on to win two out of three to take the series. Then the Brewers went on a ten-game road trip, and it went about as badly as it could have. The Pirates swept a four-game series, the NL-worst Phillies got their revenge by winning two of three, and the Nationals won a three-game set, including a 15-2 bloodbath finale, in which Washington crushed 8 home runs, including five in the second inning and four consecutively off Michael Blazek. While all that was happening, the Cubs started to surge, which gave way to the Brewers losing their spot atop the Central.
However, that poor road trip set up one of the biggest series of the year last weekend, as the Cubs traveled north on I-90 to Miller Park. If the Brewers could have squeaked out two games, they would have sat just a half game back. Instead, the bats remained silent, and they won just one game, and averaged 1.67 runs per game, and didn’t get a single hit with runners in scoring position. In fact, the Brewers went 0 for 33 with runners in scoring position for a stretch, an all-time low mark in franchise history. “A week without a hit with runners in scoring position, that’s not really acceptable,” Travis Shaw, the team’s RBI leader, told reporters Sunday. “We have to find a way to cash in on those opportunities.”
Three Ways to End the Slump
1.) Score runs, obviously
The Brewers have been able to put up huge offensive numbers all season. They have been among the Major League leaders in home runs and RBIs, and that helped mask a mostly-mediocre pitching staff (although the starters have been fantastic lately). Hitting with runners on second or third base will be key for this offense the rest of the way, and that starts with a series at Miller Park against the St. Louis Cardinals.“We’ll come back Tuesday against the Cardinals — another division rival and they’re playing well,” rookie outfielder Lewis Brinson said. “We’ll come back on Tuesday and be ready to go. I think everybody’s ready.” Although the offensive struggles continued (just 5 hits), the Brewers took game one against St. Louis on Tuesday, 3-2. It will take more than confidence to win, but confidence is a good first step.
2.) Mix-up the bullpen
Jeremy Jeffress is coming back to Milwaukee, a place he considers home. But is Jeffress (5.31 ERA with Texas this year) going to be what puts the Brewers over the top? Probably not. With that being said, Jeffress was dominant as Milwaukee’s closer last year, posting a 2.22 ERA and saving 27 games before being traded with Jonathan Lucroy to the Rangers.
Jeffress will bring a lively fastball, one that has averaged 96 miles per hour throughout his career. Many fans would also be happy to see Oliver Drake and/or Carlos Torres finally get the boot. Although they are both among the most used relievers in baseball, they’ve been frustratingly ineffective. Drake has surrendered a 4.66 ERA in 45 games, while Torres has given up an ugly 8 home runs, and posted a 4.47 ERA. Although the team wasn’t able to acquire Pat Neshek or Justin Wilson, there are guys having great years in Triple-A Colorado Springs. Taylor Jungmann, who pitched in one game in the Majors this year, is 7-1 with a 3.13 ERA for the Sky Sox. Tristan Archer has also performed well, winning 7 games and maintaining a sub-4 ERA. It could be time to call up some new names and move on from the likes of Torres and Drake.
For everyone in the bullpen, not just Drake or Torres, walks have been an issue. Between Drake, Torres, Corey Knebel, Jared Hughes, and Jacob Barnes, the most used relievers have 3.94 BB/9, which is disturbingly high. Even the All-Star Knebel has walked 29 batters in 48.1 innings (he has also struck out 85 batters, so he gets a pass). The bullpen pitched lights out in the last series against the Cubs, and that will need to continue. If it doesn’t, though, it should be a sign that more new arms are needed.
3.) Reorder the Batting Lineup
If you’re sick of Jonathan Villar’s .216 average leading off, you’re not alone. Keon Broxton was hitting .218 before he was sent down to Triple-A, so you might be wondering why Villar hasn’t gotten the same treatment. Hernán Pérez is more than capable of splitting time at second base with Eric Sogard, so it really is an anomaly. Anyway, Villar is still on the Major League roster, so why not move him down in the order? Orlando Arcia has had a tremendous season, slashing .276/.322/.399 while bashing 9 home runs and 36 RBIs. Arcia has thrived in the 8-spot all year, so why tinker with that? Because Eric Thames, Ryan Braun, and Travis Shaw need more guys on base when they are at the plate. If Arcia could continue his offensive success at the top of the order, it could maximize the RISP opportunities for the middle of the lineup. Villar was outstanding in 2016, but that has yet to transfer to 2017. Some time in the minors or hitting before the pitcher could be just what he needs.
Every team in every sport goes through significant rough patches. The last two weeks have embodied just that for the Milwaukee Brewers. We know that this is a good team. The offense has the talent to be elite, and the starting pitchers have exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations. We are approaching the home stretch, and it appears as if the Cubs are poised to make a run. The Brewers are far from finished, and they still have a fighting chance to get hot and play some October baseball.