We’re not being melodramatic, either. This weekend will define the 2017 Milwaukee Brewers.
After taking two of three from the ascendant Colorado Rockies, then dropping two of three to the woeful San Francisco Giants, the Brewers await the best team in baseball in the Dodgers, who have gone 24-6 over their last 30 games and have reached an astonishing 90 wins well before Labor Day (per MLB, the third team to do so.)
Milwaukee, atop the National League Central for over two months, has flailed with a sub-.500 record since the All-Star Break and had trouble generating offense after a first-half barrage. They still boast four 20 home run hitters (Travis Shaw, Eric Thames, Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana) and Ryan Braun, who has been stinging the ball consistently all season. The issue with the Crew is in both situational hitting and hitting to contact, a .211 batting average in late, close games as well as a 62-point drop in OPS since the break, precipitating the acquisition of Neil Walker from the New York Mets. Jonathan Villar has struggled all season to follow-up his breakout 2016, while first-half revelation Eric Sogard couldn’t regain his ability to hit or get on base after injury. As a team, they boast a dreadful .542 OPS with pitchers ahead in counts in 2017.
Here are the vulnerable Milwaukee Brewers: 3.5 games back in both the wild card and divisional chases, now four games over .500 and .500 on this west coast road trip facing down a juggernaut with about a month left to play. Are they playing up or down to their competition? Are they better than they showed against the Giants? Worse than the exhibition against the Rockies?
Make no mistake: a team that has stumbled and bumbled from their early summer heights will tell us all we need to know beginning tonight in Chavez Ravine.
If the Brewers are going to steal at least one game in this series, it should be Friday night. The Dodgers are coming off a seven-game road trip in the eastern time zone and haven’t had an off day since the 17th. Kenta Maeda hasn’t had a quality start since August 1, while Chase Anderson‘s return to the rotation Sunday was effective enough to net a W, but didn’t give us a glimpse of the Jack McDowell impression he was doing prior to being shelved with a strained oblique muscle. With Braun and Walker’s success against the veteran Maeda, chasing him and digging into the Dodger bullpen will go a long way toward victory. If the team makes Maeda’s job easy, simply put, the Dodgers will roll.
The Dodgers have not named a starter for Saturday night’s tilt–as luck would have it, Clayton Kershaw is on the shelf, along with Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy–but Zach Davies is in position to start for Milwaukee. Davies’ struggles this season are fairly well-documented; the calling card breaking stuff hasn’t been effective as he has been unable to keep those pitches down, suggesting either a persistent issue with mechanics or possible arm issues (shades of post-2005 Chris Capuano serving as justifiable precedent.)
For any team, irrespective of market size, injuries to the starting rotation typically spell doom. The fact that the Dodgers are thriving despite a banged-up rotation (moreover, eight players total on the DL) is remarkable and a testament to the Dodgers’ organization and on-field leadership. This isn’t just a bought team, though resources are virtually unlimited: this is a team built on in-house development (Joc Pederson, Cody Bellinger), consistent role players (Justin Turner) and the ability to go out and get whomever they feel is needed to keep the train rolling (Yu Darvish, Curtis Granderson, Tony Cingrani, Tony Watson.)
Sunday, Jimmy Nelson and Darvish will likely face off for the closing matinée. Nelson has been the Brewers’ best and most consistent starter, returning to 2015 form and mixing in effective off-speed stuff with lively fastballs. Despite not winning since the first of the month and getting roughed up by the Cincinnati Reds earlier in August, Nelson remains the team’s stopper with 43 strikeouts in his last six starts and–8/11 excepted–has kept the Brewers in each of those contests.
Darvish–expected to be activated for Sunday–remains a mystery, but seems to be thriving in the midst of a pennant chase. Like Nelson, his last several starts show a hard-luck pitcher keeping his team in contests with one outlier. If Darvish isn’t 100%, he is very hittable. If he is, the Brewers may hang themselves with strikeouts. They own an NL-worst K total approaching 1250 and have little history with Darvish, who spent his career with the Texas Rangers before this season’s trade to LA but has plied his trade as a strikeout pitcher.
This is no mere dog days weekend series: this is a huge tilt for the Brewers, who have everything to lose against a team boat-racing its NL West competition. If they can right the ship in Los Angeles, it would be a landmark series victory that could reasonably be a prelude to an October match-up. If they lose, it could send them into a closing month spiral not unlike fans watched in 2014, while the Chicago Cubs get a key opportunity to create more distance in the Central at an opportune time. Taking it to the Dodgers isn’t an option, but a necessity.
Yes, by Sunday night, we will know exactly who these Milwaukee Brewers are.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.