For Brewers, it's do or die: They must win, hope Mets falter
The following sentence may cause rolling of the eyeballs.
Whenever baseball people are trying to downplay the significance of a game or series, they always remind others that games in September count the same as games in April.
But if you're a contending team, that is a literal approach. Games in the final month of the regular season mean a whole lot more than games in the first week.
The Milwaukee Brewers have been experiencing that for the last 20 games, and it has been for the worse. They started the month 24 games above .500 and had a firm grasp of the wild-card lead and were even looking at catching the Chicago Cubs for the National League Central division title. But a 5-15 start to the month -- they beat the Reds on Sunday -- saw them give up that lead and the Cubs clinch.
So, now the entire season rides on the next six-game home stand.
''We're still right in the thick of things," leftfielder Ryan Braun said. "We need to play well and win every game."
The Brewers need to win each of the next two series. The first starts Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, whom the Brewers are 11-1 against, and the second is against the Cubs, who are 6-0 at Miller Park this season, including two games against the Houston Astros.
The New York Mets, the team 1 1/2 games ahead in the wild-card standings, get four with the Cubs starting tonight and finish with three against the Florida Marlins.
If the Mets go 4-3 in the final week, the Brewers would have to finish 5-1 to force a one-game playoff.
That scenario makes this the biggest six-game stretch in the young careers of Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks.
''This year we're really in it," Fielder said. "I think so only because of the kind of team we have. It would be really unfortunate to not get in with this team."
The Cubs will have a say in whether that happens or not. They play four games at New York before finishing the season with three at Miller Park. However, with a playoff berth already stashed, how seriously will the Cubs take those final two series?
''You're worried about that," interim manager Dale Sveum said. "But they deserved to give guys a little break here and there. They won the division and clinched it early enough to do that. Still, they have to keep the integrity involved in the game.
''They do need to put their best team on the field, but they have to set their rotation up for the playoffs. They're not going to let their starting pitchers go 120 pitches."
The Brewers played without much visible panic through the last six games, unlike the previous 14. The lineup has still struggled recently, but they aren't wearing the disappointment on their face anymore and tension has been pretty thin, even after losses.
Sveum has something to do with that, stressing positive aspects of a game.
''Especially since Dale's been here," Fielder said. "You can hit five balls hard right at somebody and that doesn't necessarily mean you're not swinging good. You just didn't get a hit.
''It takes a lot of (guts) to stay positive and just go get it. There is that failure part. If people start being passive, then that fear of failure comes in. Then you're not letting your natural ability come out."
Another factor making this home stand one of the most important in the team's 26-year playoff drought is next season's landscape.
The Brewers will have to restructure the bullpen, duke it out with Fielder and Weeks in arbitration if both remain with the club and probably find one more starting pitcher since CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets are likely to be elsewhere.
Because of those variables, the organization has identified this season as their playoffs-or-bust window. And the players know it.
''It wouldn't be a waste to miss (the playoffs) if you knew everybody was coming back," Fielder said. "But that's the thing, you never know. It would be disappointing because you would hope we could just keep it (together), but baseball is a business."