Milwaukee vs. Colorado
AT FIRST GLANCE
The Brewers, 2 ½ games back in the NL Central with seven games left, closed with seven straight wins to pull even with Chicago on Sunday. Milwaukee then beat the Cubs 3-1 in Monday’s Game 163 to win its fourth division title since 1969.
A potent offense features three 30-homer sluggers in Christian Yelich, the NL most valuable player favorite who fell one homer and one RBI short of a Triple Crown, Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw, and two 20-homer men in Mike Moustakas and Ryan Braun.
But Milwaukee’s true strength is a deep and dominant bullpen that ranked second in the NL in ERA (3.49), strikeouts (703) and opponents’ batting average (.230) and features four relievers — left-hander Josh Hader and right-handers Joakim Soria, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress — with 12 or more saves.
The Rockies outlasted the Cubs in Tuesday night’s wild-card game, a grueling 13-inning, 4-hour, 55-minute, 2-1 victory that required ace Kyle Freeland to throw 6 2/3 scoreless innings. That will limit the 25-year-old left-hander to one division-series start, in Game 3.
A dangerous lineup is led by Nolan Arenado, who hit .297 with a .935 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, an NL-leading 38 homers and 110 RBIs; Trevor Story, who hit .291 with a .941 OPS, 37 homers, 42 doubles and 108 RBIs; and leadoff man Charlie Blackmon, who hit .291 with 29 homers and an NL-leading 119 runs.
The Rockies have one of the best defensive infields in baseball, with the five-time Gold Glove winner Arenado at third base, two-time Gold Glove winner D.J. LeMahieu at second and Story at shortstop, and veteran closer Wade Davis solidified a vastly improved bullpen.
WHY THE BREWERS SHOULD WIN
With no clear-cut favorite in the NL field, the hottest team could win the pennant. The Brewers, six games back on Aug. 28, are clearly on a roll, having won eight straight, and they are 33-19 in one-run games.
While the Rockies traveled from Denver to Los Angeles to Chicago to play three games in three time zones in three days and played deep into Tuesday night, the Brewers rested for two days, especially important for Hader, who threw two innings on Monday.
Milwaukee doesn’t have a true ace, but all the Brewers have to do is get an early lead and turn the game over to their formidable bullpen, a formula that worked pretty well for a 2002 Angels team with a so-so rotation and great relief corps.
HOW THE ROCKIES CAN WIN
The wild-card route puts Colorado, which is 51-28 since July 2, at a disadvantage. The Rockies are expected to start 23-year-old right-hander Antonio Senzatela, who went 6-6 with a 4.38 ERA, and 28-year-old left-hander Tyler Anderson, who went 7-9 with a 4.55 ERA, in the first two games.
But if Colorado can win one game in Miller Park, it will have its two best pitchers — Freeland, who went 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA, and hard-throwing right-hander German Marquez, who went 14-11 with a 3.77 ERA and 230 strikeouts — for Games 3 and 4 in Coors Field. That could swing the National League Division Series toward the Rockies.
There is also something about winning a knockout game in the hostile confines of Wrigley Field and having your best relievers— Davis, Adam Ottavino, Seunghwan Oh, Chris Rusin and Scott Oberg — notch huge outs that builds confidence this time of year.
WHO’S COMING IN HOT
Yelich hit .370 (34 for 92) with a 1.313 OPS, 10 homers, 34 RBIs, seven stolen bases and 24 walks in his final 27 games, a stronger September kick than Vladimir Guerrero had in 2004, when he carried the Angels to a division title and won the AL MVP. Yelich, 26, from Westlake Village, led the NL in batting (.326) and OPS (1.000) and finished second in homers (36) and RBIs (110).
Hader, with his flowing locks and a vicious fastball-slider mix, went 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA on the season, striking out 143 and walking 30 in 81 1/3 innings. Left-handed batters hit .090 (eight for 89) with 49 strikeouts against him.
Veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez, acquired from Washington on Aug. 31, went 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA in his five starts for the Brewers, including five three-hit shutout innings in last Sunday’s 11-0 win over the Detroit Tigers.
Rockies outfielder David Dahl hit .287 with a .985 OPS, nine homers and 27 RBIs in 24 September games, with six of those homers coming in the final week. Story had seven homers and 18 RBIs in the seven games against the Brewers.
Arenado closed the season with a nine-game hitting streak in which he batted .361 (13 for 36) with four homers and four doubles, and he drove in the Rockies’ first run Tuesday night. Reserve outfielder Gerardo Parra hit .393 (11 for 28) as a pinch-hitter, the third-highest mark in the league.
WHO’S COMING IN COLD
Brewers leadoff man Lorenzo Cain, who hit .356 with a .942 OPS in August, hit .256 (11 for 43) with a .592 OPS and eight strikeouts in his last 12 games and has not homered since Aug. 30.
Shaw, who has been sharing second base with Jonathan Schoop, hit .241 with an .825 OPS, 32 homers and 86 RBIs on the season. His average slipped to .203 (13 for 64) in September, though he had a .388 on-base percentage, five homers and 10 RBIs in the final month.
Ottavino, the Colorado setup man, was dominant in 50 games through Aug. 3, with a 1.35 ERA, 78 strikeouts and 21 walks in 54 1/3 innings. In 25 games since Aug. 5, the right-hander had a 4.81 ERA, 34 strikeouts, 15 walks and three blown saves in 24 1/3 innings. He also gave up the game-tying RBI single to Javy Baez in the eighth inning Tuesday night.
Veteran right fielder Carlos Gonzalez hit .276 with a .796 OPS, 16 homers and 64 RBIs in the season but sagged in September, when he hit .200 with a .597 OPS, one homer and eight RBIs in 20 games.
The Brewers won five of seven games, including three of four in Coors Field on May 10-13. Milwaukee rallied from an early six-run deficit, with Manny Pina hitting a two-out, two-run, game-tying homer off Davis in the ninth inning and Shaw a two-out RBI single in the 10th for an 11-10 win on May 11. Freeland threw 6 1/3 shutout innings in Colorado’s 4-0 win on May 12.
The Brewers won two of three in Miller Park on Aug. 3-5. The Rockies salvaged the series with a 5-4, 11-inning win on Aug. 5 in which Arenado hit a game-winning two-run homer off Knebel in the 11th.
Brewers in five games.