Lorenzo Cain

Brewers carrying lessons from Game 163 into 2019 divisional race

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USA TODAY

Brewers carrying lessons from Game 163 into 2019 divisional race

It’s been 221 days since the Brewers celebrated a Game 163 victory — and their first NL Central title since 2011 — at Wrigley Field last October. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a player in their clubhouse who spent the last seven months marking days off the calendar.

After all, the 2019 campaign is a new season with new expectations. 

“As a team it was a fun year last year, we accomplished a lot, but we also need to turn the page as well,” said veteran outfielder Lorenzo Cain. “Going into this year, we've got new goals in mind, new things in mind that we want to accomplish. That's what we're trying to go out there and do, go out and create some new memories this year.”

Even fourth-year manager Craig Counsell was quick to turn the page on what was arguably the most seminal moment of his coaching career, joking that it ranked behind walking into the modernized road clubhouses at Wrigley Field.

“It was a big moment for the organization, that's what I would say,” Counsell said. “It was a big day for our fans and that's what makes you remember that day the most.”

But winning that game or not, he believes expectations for the Brewers would have been the same regardless of the one-game playoff outcome.

Infielder Mike Moustakas did note that playing the Oct. 1 game may have been beneficial for a young team, as it allowed for some postseason experience before the true elimination setting took place.

“Last year we went on an incredible run to even have an opportunity to get there but I think the one thing it did to for us was calm this team's nerves down as far as in the postseason now,” said Moustakas, who claimed a World Series title in 2015 with the Royals and knows the importance of experience in October. “When you play an all-or-nothing game like that or in the Wild Card, it kind of takes all the emotions out of you and drains you of all that stuff so you just go out there and play ball again. So I think that's what helped us.”

Six weeks into 2019, this season’s team seems to have picked up right where it left off last year. The Brewers showed up to Wrigley Field Friday having won six straight games and just a game back of the equally hot Cubs in the NL Central standings.

Milwaukee is 10-6 in the NL Central, even with only a +2 run differential. Despite being in a division with four teams at .500 or better, the Brewers seem to relish the opportunities to play divisional foes.

“It means a lot to the standings when you play a division opponent,” Cain said. “You know if you beat them they can only go one way. It's a lot of fun playing division guys.

“You try to treat every game the same, whether it's April or September. A lot more is put on later on in the season when you need the game really bad but you gotta try to treat every game the same because you never know when you might need that game. Every game counts, every game is huge. It's always a little more special when you play divisional opponents, especially the Cubs. Every time we're at Wrigley Field, it feels more like a playoff game.”

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Cubs: 3 things to know about the 2019 Brewers

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AP

Cubs: 3 things to know about the 2019 Brewers

As the Cubs welcome the Milwaukee Brewers to Wrigley Field Friday for the first time since the National League Wild Card game last October, let's take a look at the division rival.

The Cubs have already played the Brewers this season up in Milwaukee, but quite a bit has changed since then — for example, the Cubs have been on a roll, going 8-0-1 in series since.

These aren't your 2018 Brewers. They're still good — 23-16 and in second place, 1 game behind the Cubs. But this is not the team Cubs fans remember in many regards.

The Brewers are 7 games above .500 and are riding a 6-game winning streak into Chicago, but they have just a +2 run differential — a far cry from the Cubs' +57 run  differential, which leads the National League.

1. Christian Yelich is as good as ever.

These might not be the same Brewers, but some things never change. 

The reigning NL MVP is slashing .356/.462/.797 (1.258 OPS) with 16 homers and 37 RBI. He's on pace for 66 homers, 154 RBI and 129 runs despite the face he's on track for only 490 at-bats (he missed time earlier this season with a back issue). Half his homers (8) have come against the Cardinals, so the Cubs can't complain too much about that.

But the good news for the Cubs is Yelich has been insanely successful at home and not so good on the road. He's posted a 1.665 OPS and hit 15 of his homers at Miller Park and on the road, he's just been a pedestrian hitter — .766 OPS, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 14 K in 54 at-bats.

The Cubs were actually really good at minimizing Yelich's damage last year, as they did not give up a homer to the star outfielder and permitted only a .213/.279/.246 slash line (.525 OPS). 

But he's already hit a homer and driven in 5 runs in 3 games against the Cubs this season, so how do they plan on stopping him this time around?

"It's one thing to plot and plan, it's the next thing to execute," Joe Maddon said Thursday. "You could go out there with the greatest intentions and if you can't really throw the ball where you want to, then that becomes moot. I think to this point, we've had a decent plan. He still looked good the first time we saw him. 

"You gotta come up with the right plan, yes, but then you gotta execute the plan. I sit right next to [Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello] the whole time and [pitching coach Tommy Hottovy] and we're constantly talking about the next pitch, next pitch — 'how does this sound right here?' ... But guys like him, man, they're an enigma. They're so good."

2. However, the rest of the Milwaukee offense is not...

Besides Yelich, the Brewers have only 2 players with an OPS north of .800 — Mike Moustakas (.901) and Eric Thames (.840).

Lorenzo Cain is slashing only .250/.310/.395 the year after playing like an MVP candidate (though he's still a fantastic defender). 

Jesus Aguilar was in the Home Run Derby a year ago and finished the season with 35 homers, 108 RBI and an .891 OPS. But he did not end 2018 strong (.245 AVG, .760 OPS, 11 HR, 38 RBI) and he is off to a woeful start to 2019 (.181 AVG, .591 OPS, 3 HR, 14 RBI). 

Travis Shaw has hit 30 homers each of the last two seasons, but is batting just .172 with a .561 OPS and 4 dingers to begin 2019.

But with the way the Brewers have played the Cubs the last few months of regular season action, how much comfort is it really that a few key Milwaukee guys are off to a poor start?

3. This is not the same pitching staff from a year ago. 

The Brewers rank 21st overall in Major League Baseball with a 4.58 ERA and they're even worse as a starting staff (4.92 ERA, 23rd in league). 

Their plan to integrate their young right-handers (Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta) into the rotation has not gone well and the Brewers have had to sign Gio Gonzalez again to help eat innings. Even Jhoulys Chacin — who victimized the Cubs often in 2018 — has a 5.03 ERA to begin the year.

But Milwaukee has never invested much into its rotation and got one win away from the World Series last fall on their dominant bullpen. However, that's also been an issue in 2019. 

Josh Hader has given up 4 homers, but otherwise has still been ridiculous, with 10 saves, a 2.95 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 41 strikeouts in 18.1 innings. Over his last 9.1 innings, he's struck out 26 batters.

Beyond him, however, the Brewers have a 4.18 bullpen ERA and are without their closer from a year ago (Corey Knebel — Tommy John surgery) while the other part of their three-headed monster (Jeremy Jeffress) is recovering from a shoulder injury and has lost 3 mph on his fastball.

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Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

Forget 2015, the Brewers are more like 2016 Cubs

With the Milwaukee Brewers about to kick off the NLCS, many Cubs fans and pundits have taken to comparing them to the 2015 Cubs.

At first glance, it's easy to see why — they're in the playoffs for the first time as something of an underdog and "surprise" team — but that's not the recent Cubs squad we should be comparing the 2018 Brewers to.

This Milwaukee team is a lot more like the 2016 Cubs.

Here's why:

1. They're not a surprise.

Nobody expected the 2015 Cubs to win 97 games and wind up in the NLCS. They were expected to compete very soon, but everything went right in a red-hot August, they rode Jake Arrieta's right arm to the NLDS and then toppled the Cardinals to get to the LCS, where they ran into the brick wall that was Matt Harvey and and the Mets pitching staff.

The 2018 Brewers are not — and should not be — a surprise. Anybody who was caught off guard by this team being so good hasn't been paying much attention. The Brewers were leading the NL Central in 2017 for much of the year before a late-season fade that coincided with the Cubs' late-season surge.

This Milwaukee squad was always supposed to be one of the top teams in the NL in 2018 and they really hit their groove in September to chase down the Cubs. Still, it took a Game 163 to force a changing of the guard atop the division.

2. They greatly improved expectations with a big free-agent OF signing over the winter.

The Cubs had Jason Heyward in between 2015 and '16. The Brewers had Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has provided quite a bit more offense in the first season of his 5-year, $80 million contract but both Cain and Heyward provided leadership in the clubhouse and elite defense in the outfield in the first years with their new teams.

3. The Brewers have the NL MVP.

This one's an easy comparison to make, though Cubs fans will hate it.

Christian Yelich is this season's NL MVP. Sorry, Javy Baez fans. "El Mago" had a great season, but it's impossible to give the award to anybody but Yelich.

Yelich winning the league's most coveted accolade would be another perfect tie-in to the 2016 Cubs, who had Kris Bryant take home NL MVP.

4. They have a dominant LHP out of the bullpen.

Josh Hader has been doing his best Aroldis Chapman impression in 2018 as an absolutely dominant southpaw out of the bullpen. Unlike Chapman, Hader's spent all season with the Brewers, but like Chapman in '16, Hader will be leaned on heavily for multiple innings throughout the rest of the playoffs.

5. They picked up some valuable in-season assets.

The 2016 Cubs dealt for Chapman, but they also traded for reliever Joe Smith and called up Willson Contreras in the middle of the year, who provided a spark for the offense.

The 2018 Brewers have acquired plenty of valuable assets along the way this season from Mike Moustakas to Jonathan Schoop to Erik Kratz (more on him later) to Gio Gonzalez. But one of their most important additions (especially in October) was the promotion of top prospect Corbin Burnes, a flame-throwing right-hander who posted a 2.61 ERA in 30 regular-season games and allowed only 1 hit in 4 shutout innings in the DS.

6. They're on a mission with a chip on their shoulder.

The 2015 Cubs had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder as they attempted to take down the divisional powerhouse that was the St. Louis Cardinals. But again, they were a surprise contender - even within that clubhouse (especially early in 2015). But after falling short in the NLCS, the Cubs retooled over the winter and came back with one goal in mind - to win the World Series.

It was a goal they accomplished. We'll see if the Brewers will be able to do the same, but they certainly came to play in 2018 with a chip on their shoulder and the ultimate goal of winning the final MLB game of the year.

The Brewers didn't lead the division from Day 1 and weren't able to coast into October, but they still wound up with homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.

7. They have journeyman catcher who is winning over fans' hearts.

This is a fun one.

The 2016 Cubs had David "Grandpa" Rossy who still elicts deafening cheers whenever he's shown on the giant video board at Wrigley Field. The 2018 Brewers have Kratz, who has become a fan favorite recently and was mic'd up for the final out of the NLDS.

Ross was 39 when he helped lead the Cubs to the 2016 World Series and Chicago was his eighth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey. Kratz is 38 and on his ninth stop (seventh different team) along his MLB journey.

In fact, Ross and Kratz are so intertwined, they've already been compared to each other by MLB.com.

But the major difference is Kratz has zero postseason playing experience until a week ago. Will he be able to ride off into the sunset with a championship ring on his finger the way Ross did?

We'll have an answer to that over the next few weeks in the final chapter of the Brewers' 2018 season, though Cubs fans surely wouldn't be too happy to see their division rivals celebrating with a World Series parade just 90 minutes north of Wrigley Field.