For Brewers, Mets, things are getting tight in the postseason race
At one time, not so long ago, the Brewers were everybody's National League darling. CC Sabathia was the final piece to the puzzle, or so it seemed, the big, stabilizing force on the pitching staff that would carry the Brew Crew into the postseason on the strength of his indestructible left arm. The Brewers went 20-7 in August (was that just last month?) as Sabathia was touted as a possible Cy Young candidate. The Crew took a large lead in the NL wild-card race. Milwaukee seemed poised to waltz into the playoffs for the first time since 1982.
And now (gag, gag, sputter), you have to wonder if the Brewers (gurgle, gurgle) are going to get there at all. (Wheeeeze.) (Clunk.) (Cough.)
What a month this has been for the Crew. What a wild-card scramble this has become in the NL. When September arrived the Brewers had a 5½-game lead over the Phillies for the wild card. The Brewers, in fact, still had a chance at catching the Cubs for the Central division title. Milwaukee was just 4½ games behind as the month began.
Now, what an unmitigated mess this is. After getting swept in four games by the Phillies last weekend -- a sweep as convincing as any this season -- the Brewers are 3-11 in September. They are publicly acknowledging that the Central division is lost, and their wild-card lead is now gone. They are tied with the Phillies, at 83-67, just two games ahead of the Astros. And on Monday the Brewers fired manager Ned Yost and made third-base coach Dale Sveum interim manager for the remainder of the season.
"Coming into the month everybody obviously is thinking, 'Get the division, get the division, get the division,'" right fielder Corey Hart told MLB.com. "Now we're trying to salvage what we can."
Four major factors have played into the sudden squeezing of the NL wild card race. In order of importance ...
1) The Brewers' gag. I may be able to put that a better, nicer way, but I'm not sure if it'd be any more accurate. Milwaukee was rolling in August. Everyone in the league could see that the Brewers were scary. Already the talk was how formidable they would be with Sabathia and Ben Sheets as a 1-2 playoff punch.
Now the talk is how tight they have become, how scared they look. In September, just about everything has gone wrong. Sabathia and Sheets have still been pretty good. But the other starters have stumbled, and overall the rotation is 1-6 with a 5.03 ERA this month. The bullpen has been passable -- Carlos Villanueva and Guillermo Mota have been very good -- but it has been hurt by Eric Gagne's struggles (two blown saves). Overall the staff has allowed 65 runs this month, or 5.4 runs a game.
That's enough to put any team in a dive. But the Brewers' lineup has chipped into the misery, too, hitting a mere .207 this month. Here are the top six hitters, in order of plate appearances, this month: J.J. Hardy, Ryan Braun, Hart, Prince Fielder, Jason Kendall and Mike Cameron. And here are their batting averages in September: .190, .192, .176, .239, .186, .122. Cameron hit .360 last month, by the way. The Brewers have scored only 38 runs this month, or 2.7 a game.
"It can only go in one direction from here," Braun told reporters after the Philly wipeout. "It can't get any worse."
Well, don't speak too soon, Mr. Braun. On Monday, the Brewers nervous play cost them their manager as Yost was fired and replaced by Sveum.
2) The Mets' bullpen. The NL East leaders are in this picture because, if their bullpen keeps this up, they could soon drop out of the East lead and into the wild-card morass.
Since Billy Wagner's demise, the Mets have been scrambling to find some combination that works. And, for stretches, they've found it, with Luis Ayala doing the closing and everybody else just holding on for dear life.
But on Saturday the bullpen gave away another Johan Santana lead -- blowing it in the eighth inning to the Braves -- and Sunday, Ayala gave up a late home run to Greg Norton as the Braves scored five runs in the ninth to cut the Mets' lead over the Phillies to a game.
Ayala has given up 15 hits in 13 innings with the Mets. He has a 4.15 ERA.
3) The surging Phillies. It's hard to get a read on how good the Phillies are when the Brewers are playing so poorly and the Mets can't close out games. But give them this: The Phils, needing last weekend's series against Milwaukee in the worst of ways, showed a lot of chutzpah in pitching 45-year-old Jamie Moyer and Brett Myers on short rest. They both won, too, as did Cole Hamels on Saturday.
The Phillies have a 4.34 ERA this month, not as good as the Mets but good for seventh in the NL. They have a .764 OPS in September, which is the worst in the division. But it's better than the Brewers' or the Astros'.
Overall, Philadelphia is 8-5 this month. But because of guys like Myers (1.85 ERA in three September starts), Moyer (2.13 in two) and Hamels (2.89 in three), and hitters like Ryan Howard (see Player of the Week), they're back in the wild-card race. And they're even thinking about stealing the division title.
4) The Astros. Two games back with two weeks to go is doable. Sure, the Astros were no-hit on Sunday night by the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano. But this is a team, as Jonah Freedman points out, on a terrific run. Houston was nine games under .500 less than two months ago. Since then the Astros are 33-12.
The best news for the Astros, as everybody else comes back to them, might be their schedule. Though they don't have any games left against Milwaukee, Philly or New York, nine of their remaining 13 are against losing teams: the Pirates, Reds and Braves.