Baseball can be cruelly ironic at times.
For days, the focus had been squarely on the Milwaukee Brewers’ underachieving offense entering Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
But the Milwaukee Brewers saw their season come to an end with a 5-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday because their bullpen pitchers couldn’t get outs when they needed them.
“We’re all really disappointed,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “In the end, we had big goals. We didn’t quite get there. But we did win 95 games.
“It’s a special group. They did accomplish some special things.”
The last pitcher to fail was the guy who almost never faltered during the regular season: Josh Hader. The Brewers’ closer had not allowed a home run to a left-handed hitter all season, but Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman became the first, and in the biggest of situations.
Freeman’s two-out, eighth-inning home run—on a first-pitch slider, of all things—gave the Braves their third consecutive victory over the Brewers, ending Milwaukee’s hopes of a deep October run in truly disappointing fashion.
“I’ve had a lot of cool moments in my career,” Freeman said. ‘I think that’s gonna top ’em all. Hopefully it’s not the last one and I’ve got a couple more in these playoffs.”
The Brewers hoped to square the series and get it back home to Milwaukee for a decisive Game 5 before their home crowd. But after getting shut out in the previous two games, it was the pitching that let them down.
Freeman celebrated wildly on his way around the bases, and popped back out of the dugout for a curtain call as the crowd of 40,195 roared. He became the first player in franchise history to hit a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning or later in a series-clinching win,
“The first two guys went down, so I just tried to get a pitch up and he hung a slider and I put a good swing on it,” Freeman said. “There was no rhyme or reason to it.”
Entering the game, the question was whether the Brewers could score a run.
Seems silly to ask such a thing, but the Brewers had been shut out in two consecutive games, a situation that did make people wonder. And when the Brewers let a great scoring opportunity slip away in the first inning, the anxiety level only increased.
But runs eventually came, to the point they surpassed the Brewers’ total for the previous three games. Of course, when you’ve only scored two previous runs—both on a Game 1 homer by Rowdy Tellez—that isn’t difficult to do.
The dam finally broke in the fourth on an RBI single by Omar Narváez, ending two long droughts. Before that hit off Charlie Morton, the Brewers had gone 22 consecutive innings without scoring. They also had gone 20 at-bats without a hit when runners were in scoring position in the series.
As it turned out, that would be all for Morton, the 37-year-old Game 1 starter who was pitching on short rest. Much of the pregame chatter consisted of the Braves’ decision to come back with Morton while the Brewers chose not to do so with their Game 1 starter, Corbin Burnes, who was deemed not ready to pitch on three days of rest after getting at least five throughout the season.
The short-rest debate proved to be the least of the Brewers’ problems. The bigger issue became what to do when starter Eric Lauer ran into trouble in the bottom of the fourth after getting a 2-0 lead (Lorenzo Cain also had driven in a run against reliever Jesse Chavez).
Lauer got the benefit of a gift out on a foul pop carom from Narváez to third baseman Luis Urías that actually hit the ground but couldn’t be reviewed. But with two down he walked and hit, respectively, the weakest batters in Atlanta’s lineup: Travis d’Arnaud and Guillermo Heredia.
That was it for Lauer, and the Brewers’ pitching plan imploded further when reliever Hunter Strickland allowed a two-run single on a 0-2 fastball to pinch-hitter Eddie Rosario. In that position, holding a 2-0 lead with the bases loaded, it’s a cardinal sin to throw an 0-2 pitch that a hitter can handle to tie the game.
After Tellez restored the two-run lead with a monstrous home run in the fifth off Huascar Ynoa, the Brewers took the calculated risk of giving the ball to rookie lefty Aaron Ashby.
Unfortunately, Ashby committed the same mistakes Lauer did the previous inning, walking and hitting a batter to load the bases with one down. The mistakes came back to haunt Ashby when a force-out grounder by Joc Pederson and opposite-field single by d’Arnaud delivered runs to allow the Braves to draw even again.
One noticeable difference between the Brewers and Braves was that Milwaukee former had trouble putting the ball in play with runners on and Atlanta did not. Even soft contact trumps no contact.
While struggling to hold Atlanta’s lineup in check, Milwaukee’s pitchers benefitted from a tremendous defensive performance at third by Urías. He speared a rocket off the bat of Dansby Swanson in the fourth to get the third out at second instead of allowing a bigger rally.
Beyond the carom play with Narváez, Urías made other inning-ending plays in the fifth and sixth innings on balls that were not easy plays. He might have had his throwing yips at shortstop earlier in the year, but he flashed big-time leather at the hot corner in this one.
In the final innings, the Brewers’ offensive woes returned, with their final 11 batters retired in order. In that regard, they came full circle to their biggest issue, one that again haunted them at the end.