It was Jimmy Nelson’s year before an awkward slide back into first base Friday evening ended his season.
For the third time in six months, Brewers fans were left wishing they could jump back into the American League, where pitching injuries are almost entirely sustained on the mound or off the field — that is, until they remember the team would be 12 games behind the Indians instead of only two behind the Cubs.
While the partial labrum tear and strained rotator cuff did act as a spoiler for the ace of a team still on the fringe of playoff contention, it by no means defined what Nelson was able to accomplish in 2017.
He showed no signs of letting up late in the season either, even as the ever-elusive double century inning mark loomed in his near future. In his last two starts, Nelson took a no-hitter against the almighty Dodgers into the sixth, racking up 11 strikeouts, and followed that up with five no-run innings against the surging Cubs before that fateful slide — sustained after driving a banger off the center field wall — put an abrupt end cap on his season.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon on #Brewers: “More than anything, they don’t get enough credit for their pitching.”
— Tom (@Haudricourt) September 11, 2017
His statement on the public perception aside, the numbers tell a similar story.
After a highly-disappointing 2016 season in which he led the National League in walks, hit batters and losses, Nelson bounced back with a career year in 2017, compiling a 3.49 ERA (3.03 FIP) and 1.249 WHIP while leading the team with a 4.9 WAR. He turned most of the most impactful stats on their heads, dropping his hits per nine allowed from 9.3 to 8.8, his home runs from 1.3 to 0.8 and maybe most importantly, his walks from 4.3 to 2.5, all while significantly raising his strikeout rate from 7.0 to 10.2.
But Nelson’s statistical value on the mound was little in comparison to what he provided the team and its fanbase with hope. On a roster filled with dark horses playing with chips on their shoulders, he helped to realize a long-awaited change in the wind, pushing a team expected to end the year far out of contention with a record around ten games below .500 to battling for both the Central Division title and a secondary shot at a Wild Card spot.
While the blow may be a significant loss on the mound, Nelson’s presence in the clubhouse is still resonating with the players. After news officially broke, he addressed the team with demonstrative resolve and the results on the field echoed another of Maddon’s post-game quotes: “It could galvanize as much as it can be like ‘oh, woe is us.”
Zach Davies said Jimmy Nelson addressed team before game to express sorrow for injury and tell them he is behind them rest of way.
— Tom (@Haudricourt) September 10, 2017
The proof? Saturday, the Brewers went on to set a season-high in runs with a 15-2 steamrolling of their Wrigleyville foes. Sunday, Zach Davies pitched seven innings of one-run ball on his way to win number 17 (he now leads the majors), positioning the team only two games behind the Cubs in the Central.
Finding a replacement for Nelson will not be easy, especially if the team is looking for major league experience.
Matt Garza, who owns an unsightly 10.13 ERA in his last six starts is already being replaced by Brent Suter on Tuesday. Junior Guerra, the team’s Opening Day starter, has already jumped back and forth between the majors and minors and has continued to struggle giving up runs out of the bullpen. Taylor Jungmann, who had a year he’d like to forget in 2016, has spent all season between Double-A and Triple-A and although he’s put together a solid 3.06 ERA between the two, there’s little evidence he can make a smooth transition back into a major league role.
Josh Hader, who has been gangbusters out of the bullpen after getting his first taste of the majors this season, seems to be getting little consideration publicly, likely thanks to his current success as a fireballing left-handed reliever.
Chase Anderson is also a consideration given that his last outing on Saturday lasted only 67 pitches but the start would put him on short rest and may still leave the team scrambling down the line.
The Brewers do have a bevy of talented minor league starters to choose from as well, including Aaron Wilkerson, Freddy Peralta and Bubba Derby who all saw significant success with Double-A Biloxi this season, but rushing blossoming talent into a high-stakes race could prove to be as much of a disadvantage as it is a potential advantage.
Whomever the team decides to go with, there’s little doubt the Brewers will be facing an uphill battle in the stretch. But as long as Jimmy Nelson remains with the team, there’s still hope from players and fans alike that he still has some 2017 magic left in him — the kind powerful enough to help propel 40 underdogs into a position to gain some much-needed experience that only October baseball can provide.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.