Baseball is often a game of defying expectations, but the Milwaukee Brewers may have taken it to a point of absurdity in 2017.
Nearly every assumption for the team and individual players in the early goings has been turned on its head within the first 131 games, if not sooner.
A team predicted to end the season at least 10 games below .500 now stands at 68-63, only a 2.5-game stone’s throw from first place in the division. A starting rotation that was almost entirely written off in March is the 10th best in all of baseball approaching September. A previously solid bullpen has been gutted numerous times, last year’s star Jonathan Villar has been one of the team’s least productive and some nearly unknown players have stepped into the spotlight of offensive prowess.
Take your pick, chances are there are still more to come.
The Brewers proved it again on their most recent road trip, taking two of three from the fourth-most run-happy offense (Colorado Rockies) in the majors, losing two of three to the second-worst team in the league (San Francisco Giants) and edging the best team in baseball with a pair of wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday and Sunday.
There are still 31 games remaining but even with the return of Chase Anderson, the impending recall of Brandon Woodruff and the team’s surprising depth, there’s little doubt Milwaukee faces an uphill battle.
Just within the division, the Brewers will have to face the Cardinals and their history of late-season surging five more times, a competitive Pittsburgh Pirates team another six times and the Chicago Cubs, who now boast the most runs since the All-Star break, seven more times, compared to only six against the sputtering Cincinnati Reds.
Of course, that’s not even to mention the four-game series against the Nationals, the league’s second-most powerful offense, and the surging Miami Marlins headed by Major League Baseball’s home run leader, Giancarlo Stanton.
Of what remains, 19 games will be played against teams with a record of .500 or better and only 12 against teams under the center-mark.
But that doesn’t necessarily spell doom for Milwaukee.
The Cubs also have a division-heavy schedule that features stiff competition without the benefit of more than three games against Cincinnati and three against the floundering New York Mets, one that has them nearly neck-and-neck with their division foes in strength of schedule.
The Rockies, one of two gateways to a wild card berth, have to face the Dodgers seven more times, a strong division rival in the Arizona Diamondbacks the same and the Marlins for a three-game series as well. The Diamondbacks themselves face similar odds with two three-game sets against the Dodgers, those seven games against the Rockies and three against the Marlins before closing out the season against the mercurial Kansas City Royals.
Let there be no confusion, there is no easy path to the playoffs — outside of those with a 13- or 19-game lead on the division like the Dodgers and Nationals — but then again, given the relatively even counterweights left in the season, even teams with longer odds still have a chance to squeak into October, where regular season records are merely predications with as much bearing in talent as they are in chance.
And of those who currently stand in the way of the Milwaukee Brewers, all share one important characteristic: an expectation to win.
The Cubs have always been assumed to be runaways in the National League Central and the Rockies and Diamondbacks were predicted to be at least .500 clubs entering the season.
The Brewers, on the other hand, had few outside of (or inside, for that matter) Milwaukee believing they would even be in the mix at any point this season. But that assumption may have given the team one of their greatest attributes: proving everyone wrong.
In a sense, outside of exceeding expectation in nearly every facet of the game, Milwaukee has already won this season, and they didn’t need to be guaranteed a spot in the postseason to do so.
They’ve reclaimed the potential of two controllable starters in Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson (if not also Zach Davies, who boasts a 1.67 ERA over his last eight starts), identified more future starters in Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff, given some of their top prospects a taste of the majors and now have a more comprehensive look at their potential depth and talent moving forward — all while keeping their head above the .500 mark.
But above all else, under manager Craig Counsell‘s guidance, they have achieved three very important elements of teamwork and gameplay: they’ve learned to fuel success with doubt, to turn regression into resilience and how to do it all while embracing the pinnacle tenet that has taken a street game of sticks and rocks to an international phenomenon — to have fun.
Whether or not the door remains open on this season will be determined somewhere in the final 31 games. But if the team’s progress this season is any indication, the end product of these final weeks will be minimal in comparison to having a young team learn tough lessons early and find a way to harvest their shortcomings as incentive for success in a future that only gets closer with every game.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.