If you’re going to erase a seven-year playoff drought, you have to win the easy ones. The Brewers weren’t able to do that on Thursday.
Handed a two-run lead against the Padres, owner of the NL’s worst record, with All-Star closer Corey Knebel on the mound, this should have been a layup. But instead Milwaukee melted down in spectacular fashion, allowing six ninth-inning runs en route to an agonizing 8-4 defeat in front of the Brewers’ home crowd at Miller Park. The loss only cost the Brewers a half-game in the standings—the division-leading Cubs were off on Thursday—but every game is significant, especially in August and September.
The Brewers were the toast of baseball a month ago, a group of scrappy overachievers led by breakout star Jesus Aguilar and a revamped outfield featuring free-agent signing Lorenzo Cain and Pete Davidson-doppelganger Christian Yelich. So what happened?
August happened. Despite landing stars like Mike Moustakas and Jonathan Schoop at the trade deadline, the Brewers have come out flat this month, losing five of eight contests including two of three to the last-place Padres. The Brewers aren’t out of it by any stretch—even with Thursday’s loss, Milwaukee still clings to a one-game lead over the Braves, Dodgers and Diamondbacks in the NL Wild Card race (the Dodgers and D’Backs are tied for first in the NL West). But with the Cardinals and Nationals beginning to heat up and Colorado still within striking distance, it’s time for the Brew Crew to snap out of it.
What’s odd about the Brewers’ slide is that their bullpen, once thought of as the team’s biggest strength, has crumbled over the past eight games. In that span, Milwaukee relievers have compiled a ghastly 10.33 ERA while allowing 10 homers and a 1.130 OPS to opposing batters.
It’s been tough sledding for the whole staff but nobody has had it worse than Knebel, who pitched to four batters without recording an out in Thursday’s gut-wrencher. Upon entering in the ninth, the right-hander walked the bases loaded before yielding an infield hit to Travis Jankowski. At that point, manager Craig Counsell turned Knebel’s mess over to Joakim Soria, a veteran the Brewers acquired from the White Sox at the trade deadline.
Soria didn’t fare any better—he did record an out, though the 34-year-old would later serve up home runs to Hunter Renfroe and Franmil Reyes before departing with a mild groin strain. Renfroe’s long ball—a no-doubter grand slam to deep left field—catapulted the Padres to a 7-4 advantage. That capped an impressive series for Renfroe, who has now left the yard in four consecutive games. The 26-year-old has hit a robust .368 versus Milwaukee this year (7-for-19) compared to just .239 against all other opponents. Knebel’s implosion wasted a quality start by Junior Guerra, who limited the Friars to just two runs over six strong innings. Despite his team-leading 3.40 ERA, the right-hander hasn’t won a decision in his last five starts.
After the game, Ron Darling brought up an interesting point on MLB Network, noting that Milwaukee’s relievers struggled down the stretch last season because they were overworked. Could that be the case again? Among NL pitchers, only Brad Ziegler has appeared in more games than Jeremy Jeffress and Dan Jennings. Meanwhile, shut-down lefty Josh Hader is on pace to throw nearly 80 innings. For Hader, the fatigue may already be setting in. He looked gassed in Tuesday’s series opener, allowing three hits and two runs in just an inning and a third while picking up his first loss of the season.
None of that is ideal and unfortunately for the slumping Brewers, there may not be an easy solution. Milwaukee’s bullpen has logged the seventh-most innings in the majors this year and the third-most of any team with a winning record behind only the Rays (who have essentially punted their starting rotation) and the Dodgers. It’s easy to see why Brewers relievers have had to work so hard this year—their starters rarely pitch deep into games. Just look at the team’s starting rotation. Guerra, Chase Anderson, Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley, Freddy Peralta—there’s not a workhorse in the bunch.
So where do the Brewers go from here? For starters, Counsell is giving Knebel a slight reprieve by moving him into a lower-leverage role, at least for the time being. “The next time out, we’ll give him an easier spot, for sure,” he said after the game. “I think we function best when Corey has the ninth, but if we have to do things a little differently to get him back on track, then that’s how we’ll approach it.”
It’s been a disappointing year for Knebel, who has seen his ERA rise from 1.78 last season all the way to 4.79 in 2018. It’s fair to wonder if the 26-year-old is fully healthy—he missed a month of action earlier this year after suffering a painful hamstring injury. Whatever the reason for his struggles, the Brewers can’t afford to have Knebel going through the motions right now.
With Knebel expected to take a hiatus from the ninth inning, closer responsibilities could soon fall into the hands of Jeffress or Hader. Either one would be a fine choice—Jeffress has cruised to a brilliant 1.29 ERA this year while Hader has been a strikeout machine, averaging 16.14 Ks per nine innings. The Brewers never committed to a true closer during Knebel’s absence earlier this year—Hader, Jeffress, Jacob Barnes and Matt Albers all took turns in the ninth inning. Perhaps, it will be that way again or maybe Knebel will take back the reins after a brief stint in setup duty.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Brewers as Milwaukee will now begin an eight-game road trip with stops in Atlanta, Chicago and St. Louis. It’s a good opportunity for the Brewers to separate themselves from the pack in a wide-open National League, though a bad stretch could send them tumbling down the NL standings. As the wise philosopher Izzy Mandelbaum once said, it’s go time.
AL Quick Hits: The Mariners shook things up Thursday by sending former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez to the bullpen. King Felix lost his spot in the rotation following a disastrous turn Tuesday at Texas (6 IP, 8 H, 11 R, 7 ER). The 32-year-old has never made a major league relief appearance … Carlos Correa returned to Minute Maid Park on Thursday following a five-game rehab stint with Double-A Corpus Christi. The Astros are expected to activate him ahead of Friday night’s game against Seattle. A lower back injury has sidelined the shortstop since late June … Justin Verlander had a rough outing against the Mariners, allowing seven hits and six earned runs in just two innings of work. His night ended when he was ejected for arguing a balk between innings. The right-hander is stuck on 199 career victories … The Athletics have made improving their bullpen a point of emphasis in recent weeks, acquiring Jeurys Familia from the Mets and Shawn Kelley from the Nationals. That trend continued Thursday as the A’s landed Fernando Rodney in a trade with Minnesota. The 41-year-old is MLB’s active saves leader with 325, one ahead of Boston’s Craig Kimbrel … Mookie Betts hit for the cycle Thursday in Boston’s loss to Toronto. He’s the first player in the majors to hit for the cycle this year … Ian Kinsler, who landed on the DL with a strained hamstring last week, is slated to work out with Low-A Lowell this weekend. He’ll join the Red Sox Tuesday in Philadelphia but probably won’t be activated until later in the week … Chris Sale threw a successful 50-pitch bullpen session on Thursday. That puts him on track to start Sunday against the Orioles. The All-Star left-hander has been out the past two weeks with left shoulder inflammation … Drew Pomeranz has been ousted from the Red Sox’s starting rotation. With Sale nearing a return and Brian Johnson and Nathan Eovaldi both pitching well, Pomeranz was the odd man out. For now, the left-hander will work out of the pen … Eduardo Rodriguez (sprained ankle) is scheduled to face hitters during Friday’s live batting practice. E-Rod is close to beginning a rehab assignment and should be back by the end of the month … Aaron Judge ran the bases on Thursday but still has yet to pick up a bat since going down with a fractured right wrist on July 26. The Yankees had planned for him to be back in three weeks but that timeframe may have been overly optimistic … Aroldis Chapman turned in another lackluster effort on Thursday, walking a pair of batters before closing out the ninth inning in New York’s 7-3 victory over Texas. After the game, manager Aaron Boone insisted that Chapman is fine physically but is struggling with some mechanical issues … Giancarlo Stanton’s homer Thursday night, a 449-foot missile to left field in the fifth inning, left the park at 121.7 mph. That’s the hardest-hit home run ever recorded by Statcast as well as the hardest-hit ball in the major leagues this year … Gary Sanchez has begun hitting off a tee and has also resumed throwing drills. He’s expected to run on the field at the team’s spring training facility in Tampa this weekend. The Yankees catcher has been hampered by a groin injury since late June … Michael Brantley knocked in the game-winning run with a walk-off single Thursday against Minnesota. Brantley’s game-winner came one day after Francisco Lindor beat the Twins with a walk-off three-run homer. The surging Indians have won seven of their last nine while opening up an 11-game lead in the AL Central … Cleveland outfielder Leonys Martin missed Wednesday’s game with what manager Terry Francona described as “intestinal turmoil” and has since been placed on the disabled list. The veteran was acquired from Detroit at last month’s trade deadline.
NL Quick Hits: Julio Urias will continue his rehab from shoulder surgery Friday when he takes the mound for High-A Rancho Cucamonga. The left-hander is scheduled to pitch two innings … Bryce Harper sat out Thursday’s game against the Braves after taking a pitch off his leg a night earlier. The 25-year-old has been red-hot since the All-Star break, batting .339 with five homers and 17 RBI over 62 second-half at-bats … Anibal Sanchez exited Thursday’s contest against the Nationals after taking a comebacker off his left calf. Sanchez was noticeably limping after the game, though the Braves right-hander still expects to make his next start Tuesday against Miami … Ross Stripling pitched well in his return from the disabled list Thursday, scattering four hits and one run over six innings in a no-decision at Colorado. He missed the minimum 10 days with right toe inflammation … As part of the upcoming Players Weekend, MLB will feature nicknames on the backs of each jersey. There are plenty of great nicknames to choose from but the winner has to be Diamondbacks closer Brad Boxberger, who proved that his emoji game is quite strong.