Despite being battered by a staggering spate of injuries, the Milwaukee Brewers enter the new week atop the NL Central with a 17-11 record. The Crew’s .607 winning percentage is tied with San Francisco for best in the National League. And many players can share credit 41 different players have been used in the first 28 games.
Mighty impressive, because no team has been jolted harder by injuries. As of Sunday Milwaukee had an astonishing number of players, 17, on the Injured List. The damage has weakened the major-league nucleus and tested the organizational depth, but the resilient Brewers have won nine of their last 13 and just took three of four games in a series with the LA Dodgers.
“We’re being challenged. That’s certain,” Brewers president of baseball ops David Stearns said. “We’re digging deep into that depth. For a while, we were digging deep to the position-player depth and the pitching was more or less untouched. And now we’re pretty deep on both sides.”
The Brewers are competing without starting outfielders Christian Yelich (back) and Lorenzo Cain (quad.)
Primary catchers Omar Narváez (hamstring) and Manny Pina (fractured toe) were lost within a five-day span last week. The Narváez absence is a blow to a so-so offense; he’s batting .368 this season with a .972 OPS.
The stellar rotation is dealing with the sudden departures of co-ace Corbin Burnes (Covid list), No. 5 starter Brett Anderson (knee) and depth starters Josh Lindblom (knee) and Zack Godley (index finger.)
Also missing are two useful backups, infielder-outfielder Jace Peterson (thumb) and utility infielder Daniel Robertson (concussion.) Two other utility guys — Mark Mathias and Tim Lopes — are on the IL.
The bullpen is proceeding without ground-ball specialist RH reliever Eric Yardley.
How crazy is the injury outbreak?
The Brewers used five catchers over a seven-day period that began April 26: Pina, Narvaez, Luke Maile, rookie Marco Feliciano and Jacob Nottingham.
When Pina got hurt, Maile was brought in from the alternate-site camp. When Narvaez limped off the Brewers promoted Feliciano, who had played only two games above the Class A level. For protection the Brewers made a deal with Seattle to reacquire Nottingham. He had quite the week — designated for assignment by the Brewers on Wednesday, claimed on waivers by the Mariners, and traded back to Milwaukee on Saturday. “Notty” arrived in Milwaukee after midnight late Saturday and hit two home runs in Sunday afternoon’s 16-4 loss to the Dodgers.
“We just keep doing it every night. Finding ways to get it done,” said Brewers third baseman Travis Shaw. “Seems like however many runs we need, we score that exact amount every single night, whether it’s one, whether it’s five, six, whatever it is, we’ll get it. We’ve been getting just enough to win.”
Beyond the injuries, the Brewers offense is ailing because of the extreme collapse by first baseman Keston Hiura; he’s batting .159 with 32 strikeouts in 79 at-bats. (High fastballs are foiling him.) This, coming less than two seasons after he slugged .580 as a rookie sensation in 2019.
The Brewers also need more from outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., the pricey free-agent acquisition. He’s off to a slow start, batting .189 with a terrible .252 OBP.
Offensively the Brewers rank 9th in the NL in runs per game (4.04), are 11th in slugging percentage and rank last in batting average (.217) and OBP.
So how are the Brewers winning?
—Run prevention: Even with Sunday’s 16-run implosion their overall staff ERA (3.69) is 10th in MLB.
—Through Saturday the rotation had 12 Quality Starts and the second-best ERA (2.57) in the majors. In 11 combined starts Burnes and Brandon Woodford have teamed for a 1.67 ERA. The Brewers are getting good work from No. 3 starter Adrian Houser and No. 4 starter Adrian Houser; they’ve combined for a 2.94 ERA in 11 starts. Sunday the strapped Crew had to start rookie Alec Bettinger, who was lacerated by the Dodgers for 11 runs in four innings.
—The bullpen isn’t quite as formidable as anticipated, but the trend is improving. There’s nothing wrong with closer Josh Hader (0.84) and early-season surprise J.P. Feyereisen (no runs allowed in 15 innings.) Since April 19, Hader, Feyereisen, Devin Williams, Brent Suter and Brad Boxberger have combined for an 0.87 ERA in 33 innings.
—The Milwaukee defense is doing an excellent job of guarding the pitching staff. Through 28 games they have 16 defensive runs saved, which ranks second in the majors.
—The outfield has received a timely lift from backups Tyrone Taylor (.981 OPS) and Billy McKinney (.439 slug.)
—In his return to Milwaukee, Shaw is tied for 7th in the majors with 21 RBIs. The free-agent addition, second baseman Kolten Wong, is batting .400 in 10 games since returning from the IL.
—The Brewers are winning the close ones, and tough ones. They’re 5-2 in one-run games, 3-1 in extra innings and 9-3 on the road. They’ve gone 8-2 against teams with winning records including their 6-1 mark vs. San Diego and Los Angeles.
—Craig Counsell is the best manager in the division. He may be the best manager in the majors; he’d be on the short list in any such discussion. This is certain: Counsell has fostered a winning culture. The Brewers have made it to the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and are handling the early-2021 adversity with poise, purpose and professionalism.
“We’ve kind of established that culture over the last three years that no matter who’s in there, guys are going to be prepared, guys are going to give their best,” Shaw said. “We’re really being tested right (now), but we’ve come through better than I think anybody could expect.”
The Brewers’ depth has held up in an admirable way, but the signs of stress are increasing. The first reliever into Sunday’s blow away loss was Jordan Zimmermann, age 34 and a veteran of 275 MLB starts for Washington and Detroit. After failing to make the Milwaukee staff during spring training, Zimmermann retired last week — “for about two hours,” he said — before answering Milwaukee’s urgent call for help.
Yelich and Cain are on schedule to return soon; perhaps as early as the early part of the seven-game road trip (Philadelphia, Miami) that starts Monday.
Pina should be back this coming weekend, and the Brewers hope Narvaez can return by mid-May.
Burnes’ return date is TBD, but his presence is vital to the rotation. Lefty Eric Lauer, the former Padre, stepped into the rotation and pitched very well in his first start with five shutout innings against the Dodgers.
“We’ve been dealing with injuries with a lot of key guys in this lineup,” Hader said. “It’s a testament to these guys coming up and taking on so much. Our guys are stepping up and doing the right thing, and playing the game hard. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for – 100% effort. We all have injuries. But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. We get these guys healthy and we’re already looking really good now. It’s going to be nice to get these guys off the injured list and healthy.”
AROUND THE NL CENTRAL
The Cubs and Reds tangled for three days in Cincinnati, with the home team taking two of three games at Great American Ball Park.
1.) During Saturday’s game, the teams emptied their dugouts for a potential skirmish after Reds reliever Amir Garrett went nutso on the mound following his punchout of Anthony Rizzo. Garrett’s chest-thumping and hollering in Rizzo’s direction prompted Cubs shortstop Javy Baez to charge onto the field to challenge Garrett to a fight. Order was restored; the bout was canceled.
“That’s not the way that baseball is intended to go, but I think that’s his style,” Cubs manager David Ross said of Garrett. “I don’t agree with it. I think it’s garbage, but he’s not on my team.”
Shockingly, Reds manager David Bell saw it differently. “From my standpoint, I saw Amir speaking to himself. I may be wrong,” Bell said. “I thought it was Amir showing excitement and it was directed at himself. He was excited. He’s been working to get back to that point. But I don’t know how it was interpreted by the Cubs.”
Answer: “Even his teammates are not on his side,” Báez said. “They know he’s wrong.”
When asked about the Cubs’ criticism the day after the disturbance, Bell was predictably defiant, dismissing Ross and the comments from the Chicago side. “I don’t care what any player or manager on another team thinks about our team,” he said. “I don’t care what they think of our team or any player on our team. I don’t comment or care about how other teams go about it. We don’t react. We don’t respond to how other teams go about it. That’s it. I really don’t care what another manager thinks about any player on our team. They don’t know anything about our players. They don’t know anything about our team.”
And Garrett? “I felt my normal self, so when I struck Rizzo out, I let him know. I let him know, ‘I’m back.’ I’m good. I’m here. That’s basically all it was,” Garrett said. “I turn around, got the ball and heard Báez chirping, so I’m going to chirp back. It’s fine. We weren’t going to fight because that split second that we had that much time to get to each other, I can get to him if I wanted to and he can get to me.”
The Cubs won Saturday’s game, 3-2.
Garrett says he’s back? Well, he might want to check with his radioactive 10.38 ERA on that. The ERA might have a different opinion.
2.) The Reds won Sunday’s rubber match with a wacko 13-12 victory in 10 innings. The combatants combined for 30 hits, 10 homers (five by each team), 15 extra-base hits and 13 relievers.
Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos hit two homers, had five hits drove in four runs and scored four. He’s hitting .330 this season with a 1.036 OPS. The Cubs’ Kris Bryant had two homers, three RBIs and is batting .323 with a 1.114 OPS.
For only the 17th time in MLB history, two teams combined for 10 or more home runs in the same game.
Tony Wolter had an eventful day for the Cubs. He started at catcher, played second base, and was caught stealing on an unsuccessful delayed steal of home.
Wild day in Cincy.
“Just each team taking one good swing after another, putting points on the board,” Castellanos said.
“It felt like a playoff game, to be honest with you,” Ross said. “Back and forth. Heavyweight fight. Wind blowing out in Cincinnati. And we just came up on the short end.”
3.) After getting swept in three at Busch Stadium last weekend and having their losing streak stretch to seven, the Reds rebounded to win four of six from the Dodgers and Cubs. The Reds (13-14) are in third place in the NL Central, 3.5 games behind first-place Milwaukee.
4.) The Reds are 9-6 at home, where they average 7.7 runs per game. On the road, the Reds average 2.9 runs and are 4-8. They bat .292 at home, .202 on the road. The OPS is .913 at home, .601 on the road.
5.) After a brief turnaround the Cubs have lost three consecutive series, going 2-7 against the Brewers, Braves and Reds. They occupy the NL Central basement with a 12-16 record. The Cubs’ pitching is horrendous. Their overall ERA, 5.01, ranks 28th. Their rotation ERA, 6.00, is the worst in the majors. Opponents have thrived against Cubs starting pitchers for a .273 average, .355 OBP, .486 slug, and 27 homers.
6.) No. 1 Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks has a 7.54 ERA in five starts … Zach Davies, acquired from San Diego in the Yu Darvish trade, has an 8.22 ERA in six starts … former Pittsburgh starter Trevor Williams has a 6.01 ERA in six starts … Jake Arrieta was off to a terrific new beginning in his reunion with the Cubs until the Reds pounded him 7 runs in 3.1 innings Friday …during the team’s current 2-7 skid the Cubs starting pitchers have a 7.62 ERA and have been ravaged for a .589 slugging percentage.
7.) The Cubs play terrible defense. They rank 29th in the majors with negative 14 in defensive runs saved. The other teams in the NL Central are playing “plus” defense so far in runs saved: Milwaukee 16, St. Louis 9, Pittsburgh 5, and Cincinnati 1.
8.) The Pirates have lost four in a row to drop to 12-15. The Bucs don’t bring much of an offense to the competition. They’ve averaged 3.4 runs per game while going 5-6 in their last 11. Overall, Pittsburgh is 13th in the NL in runs per game, 14th in homers (only 20), and last in OPS (.662.) Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes continues to make progress in his rehab of a wrist injury; the Bucs will be thrilled to see him return.
9.) Cards outfielder Dylan Carlson leads National League rookies in hits, extra-base hits, most times reaching base, and runs scored.
10.) A month and two days into the season, here are your early NL Central leaders in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for position players: Bryant (1.8), Castellanos (1.5), Cincinnati’s Jesse Winker (1.), Nolan Arenado (0.8) and Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds (0.8)
The Week Ahead: St. Louis is home for four against the NY Mets and three vs. Colorado … the Cubs host the Dodgers for three and the Pirates for three … Cincinnati hosts Tony La Russa and the Chicago White Sox for two games and head to Cleveland for a four-game series … Milwaukee hits the road: four games at Philadelphia, three at Miami … the Pirates go on the road for three at San Diego and three against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Just a note: I’ll have a separate column on the Cardinals for you later today.
Thanks for reading …
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