Thus far this season, the Brew Crew have been the Clutch Crew – or, depending on your disposition, the alternately Exciting-and-Anxiety-Inducing Crew.
After Monday’s triumph over the Cardinals, the Milwaukee Brewers are currently 6-5 with five of those victories coming in their final at-bat. They’ve had three ninth-inning home runs, two walk-off wins and, last night in St. Louis, scored the go-ahead run on a bases-loaded walk.
It’s unsurprisingly the first time in franchise history the Brewers have achieved such a proportion of their wins in their last at-bat, an exhilarating-if-exhausting feat that is obviously unsustainable and not-at-all expedient for a club with playoff ambitions.
"Look, we’ve been a bit of a high-wire act for a little over a year now," manager Craig Counsell said after his team’s 5-4 walk-off win over the Cubs at Miller Park on Friday. "It’s exciting. It’s maddening. It’s frustrating. It’s entertaining baseball, I think. And the nights that it doesn’t work out, you want more, for sure. We’ve had some dramatic wins and that’s cool. But at the end of the day, when you’re looking backward, you can’t change anything."
Added Travis Shaw, "The ninth inning is our inning."
Indeed, Melodramatic Milwaukee has scored eight runs in the ninth inning, accounting for an outsized 21 percent percent of its 38 runs scored. The ninth inning has also belonged to the team's opponents, though, who’ve scored eight of 52 total runs in that frame. The Brewers have added two runs in a couple of extra-innings wins, but their overall minus-14 run differential tells a more complete story than the 6-5 record.
The Brewers’ 0.73 ninth-inning runs per game ranks third in the Major Leagues, and it’s more than triple their 2017 average of 0.22. That's an impressive, if small-sampled display of clutch hitting. Unfortunately, their 0.73 ninth-inning opponent runs per game is third-worst, and the loss of All-Star closer Corey Knebel (hamstring injury) for six to eight weeks won’t help their high-leverage pitching woes at all.
Of course, we can’t say it hasn’t been fun. There was Opening Day in San Diego, when Orlando Arcia singled in Ji-Man Choi with two outs in the 12th inning to beat the Padres, 2-1; the next night, (clutch hitter?) Ryan Braun’s three-run homer on an 0-2 pitch with two outs in the ninth capped a five-run rally in a stunning, 8-6 victory over San Diego. During Milwaukee’s home stand, Christian Yelich and Braun hit back-to-back home runs with two outs in the ninth in the team’s 5-4 walk-off win over the Cardinals; then, a few nights later against the Cubs, facing a five-man infield with one out in the ninth inning, Arcia flared an opposite-field single to right to score Manny Pina in another 5-4 walk-off win.
And on Monday night, after allowing St. Louis to score the tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning, Arcia worked a bases-loaded walk in the 10th to plate Shaw in yet another 5-4 Brewers victory.
"There’s definitely been some tough ones, but so far there have been a lot more good ones than bad ones," said reliever Jacob Barnes. "Hopefully, we can keep that up throughout the whole year."
Said Counsell, "This is part of the roller coaster, this is part of the ride. This is what the baseball season is. There are going to be tough games, there are going to be games that are a ton of fun like this. There are going to be ordinary games, but this is the ride we're on."
Counsell added, tongue mostly in cheek, "We'll try to thrill you every night," but such white-knuckle baseball is detrimental, especially this early in a long season. The Brewers loaded up on offense by adding Yelich and Lorenzo Cain over the winter, but both are already injured. And while their pitching staff has been mediocre (15th-ranked team ERA of 3.84), the defense has been dreadful (an MLB-high 15 errors, five more than the next team).
In the first six innings, the Brewers have averaged just 2.09 runs per game, which is fifth-worst in baseball. They've also given up the eighth-most runs per game in the first six innings (3.64). Milwaukee must produce more early and improve its performance, or frequently playing from behind will have negative consequences throughout the team, from the bullpen to the bench, fatigue and health to pressing and team morale.
"When you play close games, the results are going to probably swing back and forth a little more," Counsell said. "To get better than that, you have to have some easier games. That’s how it’s going to have to work. It’s going to be a crazy clip playing one- and two-run games like that. It’s really challenging because you have to be close to perfect in those late-inning situations."
Baseball’s 162-game regular season is six months long, seven for the teams that make the playoffs. If the Brewers want to still be playing in October, they’ll need to help themselves out and put teams away before the ninth inning far more often than once every 11 games, no matter how fun the roller coaster ride may be.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.