Corey Knebel

Brewers dealt a huge blow with closer Corey Knebel done for the season

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USA TODAY

Brewers dealt a huge blow with closer Corey Knebel done for the season

ARLINGTON, Texas - The season is just one day old and the reigning NL Central champs have already been dealt a big blow. 

Milwaukee closer Corey Knebel has a torn ligament in his elbow and as a result, has chosen to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair it instead of the riskier option of rehab:

Knebel, 27, is a big part of the Brewers bullpen, breaking out with a 1.78 ERA in a league-leading 76 appearances in 2017. That included 39 saves, 11 holds and an absurd 126 strikeouts in 76 innings. 

Last year, he dealt with some injuries and general ineffectiveness, even getting sent down to the minor leagues for a little over a week in August. But he was still a huge piece in the Brewers bullpen, leading the team with 16 saves and striking out 88 batters in 55.1 innings.

Knebel was absolutely lights-out following his demotion to the minor leagues. After being recalled, he did not allow a run in all of September (16.1 innings) and permitted just 8 baserunners (5 hits, 3 walks) while whiffing 33 batters. He carried that right into the postseason as he allowed only 1 run on 2 hits in 10 October innings against the Rockies and Dodgers.

Over his career, Knebel has a 2.77 ERA against the Cubs in 26 innings, striking out 38 of the 107 batters he's faced. He picked up the win in Game 163 at Wrigley Field last October.

This leaves the Brewers shorthanded in the bullpen, which was a major area of strength for the team last year. Josh Hader is still around and was his usual dominant self in Game 1 Thursday, but now Knebel won't be able to provide anything in 2019 (and who knows how he'll bounce back for 2020) and fellow high-leverage reliever Jeremy Jeffress is on the injured list with a shoulder injury.

Milwaukee also opted this spring to move up-and-coming young right-handers Corbin Burners, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta into the starting rotation, which further weakened the relief corps. All three were effective out of the bullpen down the stretch last season.

Maybe this Knebel news will push the Brewers to go out and get Craig Kimbrel, as it's been reported the team has been in talks with the elite free agent closer. 

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The Brewers bullpen is suddenly in a serious state of flux

brewers_bullpen_state_of_flux_slide.jpg
AP

The Brewers bullpen is suddenly in a serious state of flux

When the Brewers were linked to Craig Kimbrel earlier this week, the initial reaction was a potential move that would be an embarrassment of riches — adding an elite arm to an already elite unit.

That might not be the case any more, however. Adding Kimbrel might be something more of a necessity for the Brewers.

Brewers closer Corey Knebel was shut down recently due to what was called a tired arm, The Athletic's Robert Murray wrote. But it just came out Thursday afternoon that he is getting his elbow checked out by the team physician and "there is reason for concern," Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said.

That would be a huge blow to a Brewers bullpen that entered the season as maybe the best unit in the National League.

Milwaukee is already operating without Jeremy Jeffress for the first few weeks of the season with a shoulder issue, eliminating one of their top late-inning arms.

Now Knebel's ominous status lingers like a dark cloud over the Brewers, leaving Josh Hader as the lone high-leverage arm set for Opening Day.

Knebel, 27, endured an up-and-down 2018 season (he missed most of April with a hamstring injury and was actually sent down to the minors for a stretch at the end of August), but still wound up leading the Brewers with 16 saves (in 19 chances) while posting a 3.58 ERA and 1.08 WHIP with 88 strikeouts in 55.1 innings. 

He was lights-out in the postseason, allowing only a run on 2 hits in 10 innings while striking out 14 Rockies and Dodgers. In 2017, Knebel led the NL in appearances (76) with a 1.78 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 39 saves and 14.9 K/9. 

Jeffress led the Brewers bullpen last year with a 1.29 ERA in 73 appearances (76.2 innings) with 15 saves, 89 strikeouts and 18 holds.

The Brewers also lost another potential bullpen arm in Bobby Wahl when he tore his ACL a few weeks ago. They acquired him from the Mets in January in exchange for Keon Broxton.

Kimbrel would obviously be a nice addition for the Brewers if they were able to pull something off. He ranks as arguably the top closer in baseball and is still unsigned with Opening Day a week away. 

The Brewers caught the Cubs from behind in the division last September and came one win away from only their second-ever World Series appearance. Their bullpen was a huge part of the team's success and they already let a bunch of lower-profile names walks this winter via free agency — Xavier Cedeno (who signed with the Cubs, but is currently battling a wrist injury), Joakim Soria, Dan Jennings, Jordan Lyles.

Milwaukee also moved young arms Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burns to the starting rotation, further depleting the bullpen.

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Cubs keep showing Brewers why they're dominating rivalry: 'There are no tight butts'

Cubs keep showing Brewers why they're dominating rivalry: 'There are no tight butts'

MILWAUKEE - If the Cubs weren't in the Brewers' heads before, they surely are now.

The Cubs have now won 8 of 9 against their division rivals this season and stand alone in first place in the National League Central.

The Brewers blew a 2-1 lead Monday night in front of another chapter in the Wrigley North Takeover and saw the Cubs dismantle the strongest part of this team — their bullpen.

The Cubs made the formidable Josh Hader look human as they plated the tying run off the young left-hander in the top of the 8th inning and then unloaded on former White Sox pitcher Matt Albers for 5 runs in the 11th.

This is the first time all year Hader has worked in a game the Brewers lost and since he was forced to throw 35 pitches, he will definitely not pitch Tuesday and may be down for Wednesday's series finale as well. Corey Knebel threw 25 pitches to get 4 outs Monday, so the Cubs guaranteed he would only be able to work one of the next two games of the series at most.

To put it simply: Things are not looking great for the Brewers.

"I don't think there's ever any sense of panic with what happens," said Anthony Rizzo, who drew a walk off Hader and hit a homer off Albers to begin the 11th. "They have a guy that's unhittable come in the game and we somehow scratch a run off of him and no one's fazed.

"It's just grind at-bats out. It's an organization-wide mentality of not giving up and we do a good job with that."

No matter what way you slice it right now, the Cubs are the clear big brother in this rivalry.

They have the experience in high-pressure games. They have the talent. They have the attitude.

And now they have sole possession of first place (for now, at least).

"Our guys are loose cannons in the dugout," Joe Maddon said. "There are no tight butts. It's kind of interesting to listen to the conversation, even in a tight game.

"They're in the present tense and that's all I can ask for."

The Cubs won't take any of this for granted. Even with such a ridiculous start in the season series between the two teams, the Brewers are talented enough to win the next 10 straight against their neighbors to the South and finish over .500 against the Cubs.

But for now, the Cubs will take it.

"Yeah, it feels good," Rizzo said. "It's fun playing here. They have a good team, the fans are into it, they're engaged. You got the Cubs fans and the Brewers fans going at it all game.

"These are tough games, we know they're tough games. It's which way is the ball gonna fall and for us, fortunately this year, they've fallen our way."