Cardinals close in on Brewers in wild-card race

Cardinals close in on Brewers in wild-card race

Even after the St. Louis Cardinals‘ eight-game winning streak ended Thursday night, there was a sense among the players that the loss wouldn’t blunt their momentum.

That sense was proved correct Friday night when they got six shutout innings from Jack Flaherty in a 5-2 win over the injury-riddled Milwaukee Brewers that pulled them within a half-game of Milwaukee for the National League’s second wild-card spot.

The Cardinals can overtake the Brewers on Saturday night at Busch Stadium with a victory in the second game of the teams’ weekend series.

“We were not worried about that win streak,” second baseman Kolten Wong said. “We’re just trying to win series. If we keep winning series, something good’s going to happen.”

Wong made plenty of good things happen in the eighth inning to help the Cardinals (67-56) secure their 20th win in 30 games under interim manager Mike Shildt.

Wong’s defensive gem on Keon Broxton‘s chopper to the right side for the inning’s first out ended up serving as serious damage control after Milwaukee put the next four men on and scored its two runs on a Jesus Aguilar single.

In the bottom half of the inning, Wong essentially erased Aguilar’s hit with a two-run double, supplying the insurance needed to drop Milwaukee to 68-56.

“This is so much fun,” Wong said of St. Louis’ surge. “We just fight as hard as we can for nine innings every day. If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose, and then we come back the next day.”

In an attempt to pass the Brewers, the Cardinals will trot out their best starting pitcher. Miles Mikolas (12-3, 2.85) will try for his third win in four starts against Milwaukee this year.

The All-Star right-hander is coming off a no-decision in Monday night’s 7-6 victory over Washington, giving up four runs and four hits in seven innings with a walk and four strikeouts. A late rally kept Mikolas’ streak of nine starts without a loss intact.

He’ll be opposed by left-hander Wade Miley (2-1, 2.23), who has pitched well when he has been able to pitch. Miley has missed most of the season with groin and oblique injuries but has perfected a cut fastball and mixed in his changeup to baffle hitters.

Miley is coming off a quality start on Aug. 11 in the Brewers’ 4-2 win at Atlanta, settling for a no-decision after working six innings, allowing six hits and two runs. He walked one and whiffed none. In five career starts against St. Louis, he’s 2-2 with a 4.85 earned run average.

Milwaukee came into Friday night’s game minus outfielder Ryan Braun (rib cage tightness) and catcher Manny Pina (left shoulder). It lost outfielder Eric Thames to a knee injury in the third inning Friday night, the result of a collision with center fielder Lorenzo Cain in the first inning as Thames hauled in Matt Carpenter’s drive on the warning track in right-center.

The status of all three players for Saturday night’s game wasn’t immediately known after Friday night’s game, but Braun was able to pinch hit in the ninth inning.

Haudricourt: After huge first half, Brewers' bullpen has battled injuries, more hiccups

Haudricourt: After huge first half, Brewers' bullpen has battled injuries, more hiccups

ST. LOUIS – When the Milwaukee Brewers were building the best record in the National League over the first three months-plus of the season, there was no question which area of the club led the way.

The bullpen, ranked among the best in the major leagues, was the primary reason the Brewers were 54-36 on July 8, the best mark in the league. The offense was sluggish, the rotation up and down, but the relief corps seldom missed a beat.

Since that date, the Brewers have been unable to keep their heads above water, going 14-19 entering their weekend series against the hard-charging St. Louis Cardinals. And, not surprisingly, the bullpen has been leaking oil a bit over that period of time.

Up until the all-star break, the Brewers were neck and neck with Arizona and Chicago for best-rated bullpen in the National League. The Diamondbacks (3.14 ERA) and Cubs (3.32) remain at the top of the league, but the Brewers had slipped to fifth (3.76) entering the weekend.

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There are some obvious reasons for that decline, including injuries. Matt Albers was brilliant (1.08 ERA) over the first two months, slipped some in June, then hurt his shoulder and hasn’t been the same since. Currently on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, Albers’ ERA over his last five outings is 57.94, ballooning his overall mark to 6.23.

Rookie Taylor Williams, in his first full season in the majors, was superb in the first half, posting a 2.50 ERA through 34 outings. But Williams, who missed two years with a wrecked elbow, became less effective (11.57 ERA since the all-star break) and eventually found his way onto the DL as well with elbow tightness, albeit for only a short stay.

A watershed day for the bullpen, and not in a good way, came on Aug. 9 in a home game against the San Diego Padres. Closer Corey Knebel, who struggled with his command for some time, melted down completely, walking the bases loaded in the ninth and retiring none of the four hitters he faced as the Padres rallied for six runs to win, 8-4. Since that game, Knebel has not been used in save situations.

Making matters much worse, Joakim Soria, acquired before the July 31 trade deadline to provide another late-inning veteran, was forced unexpectedly into that game and gave up a grand slam before exiting with a groin strain. He is not expected to return any time soon, a big blow to the team’s relief corps.

Considering how extensively the Brewers use their bullpen, there were bound to be some hiccups eventually. Entering the St. Louis series, their relief corps had compiled 443 1/3 innings, seventh most in the major leagues.

Only one contending team had asked their bullpen to cover more innings – the Dodgers, with 447. And Los Angeles fans will be eager to tell you how poorly that relief corps has fared of late.

It’s no secret that manager Craig Counsell goes to his bullpen early and often. Following the modern-era scheme driven by analytics, he often pulls pitchers with manageable pitch counts rather than allowing them to go through an opponent’s lineup for the third time, which the numbers generally don’t support.

Counsell often uses the best weapon in his bullpen, left-hander Josh Hader, for more than one inning, and quite often (16 appearances) for at least two innings. Hader has dominated teams in that scheme, with an incredible 104 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings, but it makes him unavailable, with few exceptions, on consecutive days.

Jeremy Jeffress has been the Swiss Army knife of the bullpen, able to be used in nearly every situation, especially tight squeezes, with great success. At age 30, he made the all-star team for the first time, but Counsell has chosen not to use him in the ninth inning, for the most part (Jeffress has finished a game only nine times in 56 appearances).

All of this explains why no area of the game is more important for a manager than managing the bullpen, and no area is more criticized. Nine out of every 10 complaints (perhaps 9.5) from disgruntled fans relates to how a team’s manager is running his bullpen. Guarantee you.

Despite heavy usage of the bullpen in terms of total innings, the Brewers have made sure not to abuse relievers. Dan Jennings, who made 77 combined appearances last season for the White Sox and Rays, and likes to pitch a lot, led the pen with 58 appearances entering the St. Louis series, which put him on pace for 75.

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Jeffress was next with 56, on pace for 73. You have to count Hader’s innings, not appearances, and he was on pace for 75, a manageable number for a former starting pitcher. Knebel, who led the NL with 76 appearances in 2017, missed more than a month early in the season with a hamstring injury and is currently at half that level.

The Brewers have tried to protect their high-leverage arms by rotating less-experienced relievers on and off the roster from the minor leagues. Jorgé Lopez was up and down six times before being included in the trade with Kansas City for third baseman Mike Moustakas. Adrian Houser has been up and down five times. Jacob Barnes has 41 appearances for the Brewers but recently was sent down for the third time.

In all, the Brewers have used 20 relievers this season, and no, we’re not counting knuckleballer Erik Kratz or eephus pitcher Hernán Pérez, whose primary job descriptions are position players.

“We have a number of relievers who have bought into this, and that’s a big part of it,” general manager David Stearns said. “Guys are going to go up and down. It’s not always the most pleasant experience. It’s part of the early picture with options in baseball. It has helped us manage the workload in the bullpen.

“It’s something that we talked about at the front end of the season. We knew we’d be depending on a lot of guys who didn’t make the club out of spring training. And we’ve seen that. That’s true with guys acquired at midseason as well.

“Injuries are a part of this. We’ve had our fair share but so have a lot of other teams. I don’t think (usage) is the reason relievers are getting hurt. I think injuries are covered (by the media) a little more now than 20 years ago. Every time a player gets hurt, regardless of where they are, I read about it. So, it appears we have more injuries, but I think that’s just the appearance.”

As I have written often in recent seasons, major-league baseball is a bullpen game now. That’s why every able-armed reliever was snapped up quickly on the free-agent market last winter while starting pitchers did 1,000-piece puzzles waiting for phone calls. That heavy usage makes it more difficult than ever for a relief corps to cover an entire season without hiccups.

Fortunately for the Brewers, Hader and Jeffress have continued to pitch like all-stars. A major objective at present is to get Knebel back on track and pitching at the end of games again, and he took a big step in that direction with a dominant inning Tuesday in a 7-0 romp over the Cubs in Chicago.

The bullpen certainly has experienced more ups and downs of late than during the first half of the season but that’s almost inevitable over the course of a long season, with performance drops and injuries factored in. If you look at other clubs, that trend is not unusual.

In fact, with so many moving parts in a bullpen, it’s more the norm than the exception.

 

Brewers' Chase Anderson: Start pushed back to Monday

Brewers' Chase Anderson: Start pushed back to Monday

Anderson will receive a couple days of rest prior to his upcoming start against Cincinnati on Monday, Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Manager Craig Counsell elected to bump Jhoulys up a day in order to give Anderson added rest following his rough outing against the Braves on Sunday. It’s clear that Anderson is struggling right now, as he’s failed to get out of the fifth inning in four of his past seven outings. This will let Anderson avoid a red-hot Cardinals club and line him up for a pair of home starts — versus the Reds and Pirates — next week.

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Brewers righty Nelson unlikely to return this season

Brewers righty Nelson unlikely to return this season

CHICAGO — The Milwaukee Brewers are casting doubt on Jimmy Nelson’s chances of returning this season.

Nelson had shoulder surgery last September after he got hurt diving back to first after rounding the base on a single. It was a tough conclusion to a breakout year for the right-hander, who went 12-6 with a 3.49 ERA in 29 starts.

The 29-year-old Nelson has been working out, but he is running out of time.

“Jimmy pitching for us this year is unlikely,” manager Craig Counsell said before Wednesday’s 8-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs. “And that’s not due to a setback of any nature. That’s just due to the pace of his rehab right now. So we’re not ruling it 100 percent out, probably best goal is to just get him into a competitive situation before he shuts it down for the offseason. But I think at this point, pitching for us, the timetable to get there just doesn’t seem likely.”

Even with Nelson out and a couple more pitching injuries, Milwaukee is in the thick of the playoff hunt in the National League. It is in position for a wild card and just three back of Chicago for the NL Central lead.

Vying for their first postseason appearance since 2011, the Brewers added another pitching possibility when they acquired Jake Thompson from Philadelphia for cash considerations on Tuesday. Zach Davies also could rejoin the team down the stretch after being sidelined by an inflamed right rotator cuff and tight lower back.

Thompson was optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs. The 24-year-old right-hander is 7-8 with a 4.87 ERA in 18 starts and 30 major league appearances — all with the Phillies.

“We look at him as another quality arm that adds to our depth,” general manager David Stearns said. “Similar to Jordan Lyles, he has experience starting and relieving. We’re going to look at him primarily as a reliever at this point. He’s another arm with options that we think can really just give us another guy to add to this rotation.”

The Brewers claimed Lyles off waivers from San Diego on Aug. 5. He was hit hard in his first appearance with his new club, yielding three runs and three hits in 2 1/3 innings in a 10-1 loss at Atlanta on Friday.

Davies made a rehab appearance with Double-A Biloxi on Saturday, surrendering four runs and five hits in five innings against Tennessee. He is scheduled to start for Triple-A Colorado Springs on Thursday.

“We’ll kind of take it from there,” Stearns said. “Part of this is how Zach is feeling. And he is beginning to feel better and I think getting more comfortable with where his body is at this point. Part of this is how our current group is performing and part of it is where we think Zach is at a performance level. All those are going to be taken into account. We are getting closer to September, so that could factor in.”

The 25-year-old Davies is 2-5 with a 5.23 ERA in eight starts after winning 17 games last season. Stearns said they could have Davies make another rehab appearance after Saturday’s outing.

AP freelance writer Charlie Clarke contributed to this report.

Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap

More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Brewers' Braun exits with rib cage tightness

Brewers' Braun exits with rib cage tightness

CHICAGO — Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun has left their game against the Chicago Cubs with tightness on the right side of his rib cage.

Braun was removed for a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning Wednesday at Wrigley Field. He went 0-for-2 a day after he homered twice in Milwaukee’s 7-0 victory.

Hernan Perez batted for Braun and bounced into an inning-ending double play. Perez then stayed in the game in right field, and Christian Yelich moved from right to left to replace Braun.

Brewers' Jimmy Nelson: May not return this season

Brewers' Jimmy Nelson: May not return this season

General manager David Sterns said Wednesday that the Brewers are “running out of time” to get Nelson (shoulder) back in the fold this season, Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Nelson is continuing to gradually work his way back from shoulder surgery last September, but there’s only so much time before it becomes apparent that a return this season is unlikely. It looks like we’ve finally reached that point. Although Nelson has officially spent time on the mound in recent weeks, he’s yet to truly advance to pitching off a raised surface, since the extent of his sessions are basically just him playing catch off the mound. Sterns refrained from ruling Nelson out of the running, but he will need to make a lot of progress over the next few weeks to have a chance at returning in 2018. Sterns added that Nelson may pitch this offseason in either the Instructional League or the Arizona Fall League if he is unable to come off the DL this season.

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