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How the Brewers caught fire and made the MLB playoffs

For the second year in a row, Milwaukee is back in the playoffs after tracking down the Cubs.

The Milwaukee Brewers locker room is super excited about making the MLB playoffs! Getty Images

For the second straight season, the Milwaukee Brewers caught fire down the stretch to upset the Chicago Cubs’ apple cart. The 2019 version was even more impressive, rallying after an injury to National League MVP favorite Christian Yelich to overtake the Cubs for a wild card spot.

Though still technically alive in the NL Central race at the time they clinched a playoff spot, the Brewers settled for a wild card berth, and will play the Nationals in Washington D.C.

The low point for the Brewers came on Sept. 5, when the Cubs rallied for a series-opening win in Milwaukee, giving Chicago a five-game lead over the Brewers for second wild card position. To make matters worse, the Brewers had two teams between them and the Cubs, and were tied with the Mets. Milwaukee’s playoff odds after that game were close to flatlining:

2019 wild card race

Team Record GB Playoff odds
Team Record GB Playoff odds
Cubs 76-63 ---- 86.5%
Brewers 71-68 5 5.6%
Standings through September 5, 2019 Source: FanGraphs

To draw inspiration, the Brewers needed only to look at 2018, when they trailed the Cubs for the NL Central by five games after play on Sept. 2, with 24 games remaining. Last year there was the cushion of the wild card, though no spot was guaranteed.

2018 divisional race

Team Record GB NL Central odds
Team Record GB NL Central odds
Cubs 81-55 ---- 93.2%
Brewers 76-61 5 4.9%
Standings through September 2, 2018 Source: FanGraphs

In 2018 the Brewers finished 18-6, including two series wins over the Cubs, to force a one-game tiebreaker for the division, with the loser settling for the wild card game. Milwaukee won the tiebreaker too, on the road, then finished a game shy of the World Series.

This year with the reigning MVP Yelich having another award-worthy season, the Brewers got hot again. They won the final three games of that series against the Cubs in Milwaukee to start a seven-game winning streak. The first four wins came with Yelich, but in the first inning on Sept. 10 he fouled a ball off his kneecap, a freak fracture that abruptly ended his season.

Losing Yelich is as significant a blow any contending team could endure, especially since he was hitting .343/.513/.724 in September. But a favorable slate down the stretch suggested the Brewers weren’t dead yet. They faced the five worst teams in the National League, and they won two of three against the division-leading Cardinals, the only good team left on their schedule.

The result was 13 wins in their first 15 games without Yelich, a scorching 19-4 September, and a stunning return to October.

How the hell did they do it?

Rookie outfielder Trent Grisham got the bulk of Yelich’s at-bats and had am .830 OPS with 11 RBI since the All-Star went down. Stellar rookie second baseman Keston Hiura, whose 139 wRC+ is second only to Yelich on the team, missed the first two weeks of September with a left hamstring strain but is hitting .290/.324/.613 since his return, with three home runs in just nine games. Ryan Braun slugged .667 after his outfield mate went down.

But the pitching has been the biggest improvement, with Jordan Lyles, Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and Gio Gonzalez combining for a 2.22 ERA in 16 September starts. Relievers Brent Suter, Josh Hader and Drew Pomeranz have 58 strikeouts and four walks this month, while allowing only five runs in 40⅓ innings.

The Brewers have a 2.74 ERA in September, best in MLB, after a 4.68 ERA in their first 135 games.

After that Sept. 2 loss, the Brewers not only trailed the Cubs, but were also 7½ games behind the Nationals for the top wild card spot. They closed to a virtual tie with a week to play but Washington pulled away in the final week and will host the wild card game.

The Cubs demise

Chicago helped grease the skids for a Brewers comeback with an eight-game skid of their own, including losing five games in their opponent’s final at-bat. Their postseason odds on FanGraphs were pegged at 76.7 percent as late as Sept. 16 before everything went haywire.

The Cubs got the King Kong-sized monkey off their back with a World Series win in 2016, snapping a 108-year championship drought. That was a 103-win juggernaut, a team overflowing with young talent with all the pieces in place for a budding dynasty. They followed with 187 wins in the next two years, even reaching the NLCS in 2017. But a wild card game loss last year followed by a second consecutive September fade has Cubs fans wondering what could have been.

Without Yelich things only get tougher for the Brewers, who will have to win a wild card game before the privilege of another NLDS. But just getting to the postseason was a remarkable accomplishment for Milwaukee. They gave themselves a chance, which is all you could ask.