MILWAUKEE — In baseball, being too good can sometimes be a curse.
Take the 2021 Milwaukee Brewers. They were in first place in the National League Central for most of the regular season. Behind a dominant pitching staff, the Brewers built such a large lead in a weaker division — 14 games by mid-September — that when they struggled in the closing weeks, they still backed into the division title with 95 wins. The games down the stretch didn’t have the same importance and, despite their best efforts, the Brewers limped into the playoffs, where they were quickly bounced by the eventual champion Atlanta Braves.
“We played marvelously until the final two weeks of the year,” Brewers shortstop Willy Adames said in Spanish over the weekend. “Then we went in the wrong direction and we couldn’t get out of there, and that was the reason we didn’t advance past the first round.”
This year, the small-market Brewers don’t have a cushion. They need every win and as much time as possible to ensure their streak of four straight postseason appearances isn’t snapped.
Despite a 2022 season defined by injuries and inconsistency, the Brewers (78-68 through Sunday) are still within striking distance of the third N.L. wild card. After taking two of three games from the Yankees over the weekend, they were two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies (80-66). And perhaps, Adames said, playing games in the closing weeks that matter more will have a positive effect on the Brewers this time around.
“That’s the energy the guys have, and they know we need to win and we have to do whatever possible to enter the postseason,” he said. “If we reach the playoffs that way, it’s better.”
As many past Octobers have shown, the team with the best regular-season record doesn’t always win the World Series. A long summer of success can end abruptly in a three-game series. And sometimes the team playing the best going into the playoffs is the most dangerous. So even though the Brewers were a better team last year, they hope that they can find enough consistency to nab a playoff spot and ride that deep into October.
“It’s just fun this time of year,” Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff said over the weekend. “I love playoff baseball, and hopefully we can keep stringing together some wins and get in, and you never know what’s going to happen.”
The Brewers weren’t expected to be in this position. Because of a returning cast of characters — led by a rotation headlined by the 2021 Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta and Woodruff — they were expected to contend again for a division title.
The Brewers were leading the Central as recently as Aug. 3, but the St. Louis Cardinals caught them from behind and built what was an eight-game lead through Sunday, thanks to a 37-17 record since the All-Star break in July. The Brewers went 28-25 in the same span — good enough to stay in wild-card contention but not nearly enough to keep pace with St. Louis.
“The Cardinals are an unbelievable team,” said Woodruff. He added, about his own team: “You might have a lot of the same guys in the room, but you have other people here, too. Every year is just different. It’s been a little bit more of a grind, but we get to this time of the year and we’re still right there.”
Among the biggest culprits for the Brewers’ struggles, Woodruff said, have been the health and consistency of the rotation. Four key starters have missed time with injuries. Woodruff has a 2.55 earned run average since his return from the injured list in late June, but ankle and finger ailments cost him a month. Aaron Ashby and Peralta are each on their second I.L. stints of the season for arm injuries. Adrian Houser missed 44 games this summer with an elbow injury. And Eric Lauer is working his way back from an elbow injury. (Burnes has been typically excellent, with a 2.97 E.R.A. over 179 innings through Sunday.)
The result: A rotation considered the second most valuable in M.L.B. in 2021, according to Fangraphs, was ranked 14th through Sunday.
(There have also been a whole host of other players who have missed time such as Adames, who was on the I.L. for three weeks early in the season with an ankle sprain, and outfielder Hunter Renfroe, who had two I.L. stints for leg ailments.)
At the Aug. 2 trade deadline, the Brewers front office traded away closer Josh Hader, a three-time N.L. reliever of the year — a move that bothered some in the clubhouse. The reasoning was simple: The Brewers had an in-house replacement (the All-Star Devin Williams, who has a 1.76 E.R.A.), and Hader, who is eligible for free agency this off-season, had been struggling. He has pitched worse in San Diego (13 runs in 13 appearances) and lost the closer’s job. The Brewers’ bullpen reinforcements brought in via trade have either been so-so (Taylor Rogers) or gotten injured (Trevor Rosenthal and Matt Bush).
“We just haven’t been able to combine all parts of our play, like hitting with pitching,” Adames said. “But in the past two weeks, I think we’ve played better baseball and we’re moving in a better direction.”
Thankfully for the Brewers, Adames has helped steady the team’s offense. They were scoring at roughly the same clip as last season (4.5 runs per game through Sunday), but the biggest change has been in their power.
The Brewers ranked 23rd in slugging percentage last season but had jumped to eighth place ahead of their three-game series against the Mets that was set to begin on Monday. The Brewers’ 202 home runs trailed only the Yankees (231) and Braves (220).
First baseman Rowdy Tellez had 31 home runs through Sunday, Renfroe had 25, and Adames broke the Hall of Famer Robin Yount’s single-season franchise record for home runs by a shortstop on Saturday with his 30th. The only other shortstop in M.L.B. with 30 home runs or more this season is Corey Seager of the Texas Rangers.
“It’s special to me and it means the world to me to be right next to a legend like Robin Yount,” Adames said, adding later, “I’m trying to do the most to help the team win games. We need it now the most.”
Adames said he was grateful that the postseason format had expanded this year to 12 teams from 10 because it gives the Brewers a chance. And while most players insist they don’t check the scoreboards to see how opponents are doing, Woodruff admitted he did at night after the Brewers’ games were over. Time is running out to catch the Phillies or Padres.
“Obviously we’re not blind to what’s going on,” Woodruff said, “but we try to focus on each other and trying to win a baseball game each day.”