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Brewers ace Corbin Burnes wins National League Cy Young Award, edging Phillies' Zack Wheeler

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The Milwaukee Brewers finally have another Cy Young Award winner.

Right-hander Corbin Burnes was named the 2021 National League Cy Young Award winner Wednesday when balloting of the Baseball Writers Association of America was announced on the MLB Network.

Burnes topped the other two finalists previously announced, Philadelphia righty Zack Wheeler and Los Angeles veteran Max Scherzer, in a very close race. Burnes and Wheeler each garnered 12 first-place votes but Burnes finished ahead in the points total, 151 to 141.

The Brewers had not claimed a Cy Young winner since 1982, when Pete Vuckovich won the award in the American League for his role in leading the club to its only World Series. The only other Milwaukee winner came the previous season when reliever Rollie Fingers captured that award as well as AL most valuable player.

"It's awesome," Burnes said on the awards show during a joyous celebration at home. "I want to thank everyone that's contributed to this season. Congrats to both Max and Zack for great years. There were a lot of great arms this year so it's awesome to be mixed in with these guys. This is exciting.

"Growing up, you always want to pitch in the big leagues and you want to be the best in the league. But, for me it wasn't really a goal until really my 2019 season. When you get kicked in the teeth like that (1-5, 8.82 ERA in 32 appearances), to try to come back to the best in the league is the goal. I thank everyone who was behind me."

It was a runaway in the voting for American League Cy Young as Toronto left-hander Robbie Ray received 29 of the 30 first-place votes. The other went to the New York Yankees' Gerrit Cole, who finished second. Chicago veteran righty Lance Lynn was in third place.

How close was the NL voting? The only other time the top two finishers for Cy Young tied in first-place votes was 1981, when Fernando Valenzuela nipped Tom Seaver for the award.

Burnes won the award by doing better in the rest of the voting, with 14 second-place votes, 3 thirds and one fourth. Wheeler collected 9 seconds, 4 thirds, 4 fourths and 1 fifth-place vote. Beyond the remaining six first-place votes, Scherzer had 5 seconds, 13 thirds and six fourths for 113 points.

Los Angeles' Walker Buehler finished fourth.

Corbin Burnes led the majors with a 2.43 ERA this season.
Corbin Burnes led the majors with a 2.43 ERA this season.

All three NL finalists had strong cases for winning the award but Burnes had three bits of significant history going for him:

1. He set a major-league record by striking out 58 batters before issuing his first walk of the season (the New York Yankees’ Gerrit Cole later established a new mark for any point of a season with 61 consecutive strikeouts without a walk).

2. He matched the major-league record of 10 strikeouts in a game in a start on Aug. 11 against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. That mark was established by Hall of Famer Tom Seaver for the New York Mets against San Diego in 1970 and matched by Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola against the Mets earlier in the ’21 season.

3. One month later, Burnes pitched the first eight innings of a no-hitter in Cleveland, with closer Josh Hader covering the ninth. It was only the second no-hitter in Brewers history and the first since Juan Nieves went the distance on April 15, 1987 in Baltimore.

Burnes, 27, led the majors with a 2.43 earned run average, just ahead of Scherzer’s mark of 2.46. He also topped the NL with a 1.63 FIP (lowest since Pedro Martinez in 1999), 0.4 home runs per nine innings, 12.6 strikeouts per nine and 6.88 strikeout to walk ratio.

Over 28 starts covering 167 innings, Burnes went 11-5, allowing only 123 hits and 34 walks while logging 234 strikeouts, compiling a 0.940 WHIP and holding opponents to a .201 batting average with only seven home runs and a 35.6% strikeout rate.

It was no secret that harnessing one of the best cut fastballs in the league was the key to Burnes' success, and he talked about that after winning the award.

"In 2019, the four-seam fastball wasn't great," he said. "It's tough to try to pitch in the (strike) zone with a curveball and slider all the time. I had to find something I could get strikes with and get ahead in the count. Initially, it started as trying to throw a hard slider for a strike, and the more I threw it, the it morphed into a cutter."

Of improving his control so much this year, Burnes said, "Just more the approach. I tried to be perfect in the past and got behind hitters. The goal this year was to limit the free passes."

Of the three finalists, Burnes pitched the fewest innings – 46⅓ fewer than Wheeler – but part of that was because he missed two weeks early in the season after testing positive for COVID-19. Otherwise, he took every turn in what amounted to a six-man rotation as manager Craig Counsell tried to protect the arms of his pitchers after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Burnes emerged as the top starter on a Brewers' staff that ranked second in the NL to the Dodgers, winners of 106 games. Pitching helped the Brewers overcome an erratic offense and surge to the Central Division crown with 95 victories, one shy of the franchise record.

Asked about being pushed by fellow starters Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, who also had all-star seasons, Burnes said, "That's something we talked about all year -- that friendly competition that pushes you."

Scherzer, 37, was 15-4 over 30 starts, including 19 with the Washington Nationals, who sent him to the Dodgers at the trade deadline. He led the NL with a 0.864 WHIP, six hits per nine innings and 1.8 walks per nine, allowing 119 hits over 179⅓ innings with 36 walks, 236 strikeouts and 23 homers.

Scherzer, who previously won Cy Young Awards with Detroit in 2013 and Washington in 2016 and 2017, was brilliant after joining the Dodgers, going 7-0 with a 1.98 ERA over 11 starts.

Wheeler, 31, was a true workhorse for the Phillies, leading the NL with 213⅓ innings pitched, 247 strikeouts, 849 batters faced, three complete games and two shutouts. He was 14-10 with a 2.78 ERA over 32 starts, with a 1.008 WHIP, 46 walks, 2.59 FIP, and .215 opponents batting average.

The Brewers thought they had traded for Wheeler in a deal with the Mets in the middle of the 2015 season, along with infielder Wilmer Flores, for centerfielder Carlos Gomez, but New York backed out at the last minute. Gomez was traded the next day with pitcher Mike Fiers to Houston for four minor-league prospects – pitchers Adrian Houser and Josh Hader and outfielders Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Brewers' Corbin Burnes wins National League Cy Young Award