Major League Baseball’s regular season comes to its end this weekend. But before the attention turns to the postseason and the search for a new World Series champion, there’s still some important business to finish up.
While the Rays, Athletics and Indians wrestle for the two American League wild cards, the St. Louis Cardinals will try to hold onto a precarious one-game lead in the National League Central.
And the reason we say “hold on” is because the Cardinals have been under siege by the hottest team in the game over the last three weeks, the Milwaukee Brewers.
Virtually counted out after Christian Yelich was lost for the season with a cracked knee cap, the Brewers have been almost unbeatable, winning 18 of their last 20.
Now it comes down to the final weekend. Both the Cardinals and Brewers have clinched at least a wild card. But both obviously want to avoid the single-elimination playoff game next week against the Washington Nationals, the other NL wild card team.
The Cardinals magic number is three and the odds they will hold on are largely in their favor. They open a home series against the Cubs Friday. The Cardinals are coming off a four-game sweep of the Cubs in Chicago last week, the first time that’s happened since 1921.
Meanwhile, the Brewers end their season with a three-game series in Colorado.
“It’s not that hard because we have a lot to play for,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We’ll rest some guys . …and the guys know it. We’ll address it but they know it.”
In the event of a tie, the Cardinals and Brewers will play a tiebreaker game on Monday in St. Louis. The winner wins the division.
There is one additional contingency to consider: If the Cardinals, Brewers and Nationals have the same record after Sunday’s games, the loser of the tiebreaker between the Cardinals and Brewers hosts the Nationals in the NL Wild Card Game.
Then again, none of this would be so late-breaking if the Brewers had not pulled their season out of the drain after losing Yelich.
“We didn’t really care what our odds were all year,” Yelich told the media on Wednesday. “Nobody on this team paid attention to that. We know what we’re capable of. It’s a group of talented players. The guys stepped up and did a great job. It was somebody different every night.
“I’m sure a lot of people wrote us off, saying we couldn’t do it, for numerous reasons. But we believe in the talent in this room, the kind of guys we have, and the culture we continue to build here. I’m really proud of all these guys. They’ve done an incredible job.
“Obviously, I can’t contribute on the field but you try to do whatever you can off it. This has been really fun to watch. The guys have done a great job.”
They clinched a playoff spot Wednesday night in Cincinnati and in the midst of their celebration, Counsell could not help but feel pride.
“Look around,” he told his team. “This is what a team looks like.”
The Brewers have won seven straight and have a 20-4 record in September. After coming with one win of the World Series in 2018, they are back in the hunt. It’s only the second time in franchise history that they’ve played in back-to-back postseasons.
It’s been some rally. On Sept. 5, Milwaukee was five games behind the Cubs for the second wild card and 7 ½ games behind the Nationals for home field in the game. But the Cubs have helped them out by losing nine straight games.
“The story of this whole thing is how well we’ve pitched,” said Counsell said. “We missed Christian and we’re going to continue to miss him in every game that we play. I think the guys responded in the right way, and how Christian would want us to respond.”
Counsell was asked if he believed his team was capable of such a run.
“Obviously, you could say ‘no’ for sure. That’s why you just take it one day at a time and do your job every single day, because the next day brings a new challenge, a new goal,” he said.
“It doesn’t do us any good to make it a big thing like that. It does us good to take care of today’s business at hand, to accomplish the things we need to in our game plan, with rest and with those things, and be good at those things. If you keep doing that every day, it’s like stacking good things on top of each other and the end result is hopefully pretty good.”
The loss of Yelich was not the only setback this team has dealt with. Closer Corey Knebel (elbow) was lost for the year in spring training. Another reliever, Jeremy Jeffress, began the year with a shoulder issue and was subsequently released. Jhoulys Chacín, the best starter pitcher on the 2018 team, was cut with a 5.79 ERA.
“It’s a credit to the players,” Counsell said. “They’ve done a tremendous job with it and I think they’ve enjoyed it. That’s a credit to them because they’ve enjoyed the intensity of it. It’s not easy, mentally as much as anything, to make every game this meaningful and to push yourself this hard, for this long.
“We’ve asked for a lot of sacrifice. Something that guys aren’t accustomed to, something different. It doesn’t always make sense right away but if the group is strong, you have a better chance of that happening. The group is connected and strong, and believes in themselves.”