If the Milwaukee Brewers end up missing the playoffs by one game, their fans are going to spend all winter having nightmares about Thursday's ninth inning.
It was a great game at Miller Park against the Chicago Cubs, a game that had that postseason feel, with tension and deeper breaths between pitches and players hanging over the dugout railing and Brewers fans cheering loudly -- half enthusiastically, half nervous energy.
With a slim chance at chasing down the Cubs in the NL Central -- a four-game series sweep would mean the Brewers move into first place -- the series opener was essentially a must-win game for Milwaukee. Win and they would be 2.5 games back with nine left and have a puncher's chance; lose and they're 4.5 back.
With an overworked bullpen, the Brewers needed a strong effort from Zach Davies, and he delivered, departing after seven innings with a 2-2 tie. The Brewers scored the go-ahead run in the eighth as Domingo Santana doubled, swiped third against a sleepy Justin Wilson, and then scored as Eric Thames lined a single over the drawn-in second baseman.
Then came the ninth inning.
Corey Knebel and Anthony Swarzak were unavailable after pitching three days in a row. Josh Hader had pitched twice in three days and thrown 42 pitches. So Craig Counsell had to dig deep into his bullpen. He called on Jeremy Jeffress, the former Brewers closer reacquired at the trade deadline, who had thrown 30 pitches Wednesday.
2. Jeffress hesitated just a bit coming off the mound. If he gets to first a blink quicker, Happ is out.
3. Happ chugged it down the line. This kid is a terrific athlete.
Still, you have to get the out there. Javier Baez would later tie the game with a two-out, two-strike little grounder up the middle. Just like Knebel's errant toss to first hurt them in Wednesday's loss to the Pirates, infield defense was once again painful.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Brewers loaded the bases with one out against Wade Davis. Joe Maddon went to five infielders. Santana struck out on a fastball up and out of the strike zone. Orlando Arcia worked the count to 3-1, took a cutter down the middle and then bounced back to the mound. The Brewers would strand 12 runners. They fanned 11 times (they have the second-most 10-strikeout games in the majors with 78).
You knew what was coming next. Hello, Kris Bryant:
A little kiss from the MVP. pic.twitter.com/UTJCwbr755— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 22, 2017
Bryant had actually been terrible in the big moments all season, hitting .162 in late & close situations before this game. I guess he was due. The Brewers fell to 4-10 in extra-inning games. How many similar moments were there in some of those losses? We don't talk enough about the little things that can decide a baseball game. On this night, they did.
One final note. I'm not going to pound Counsell for not using his best relievers. Nobody pitches four days in a row anymore -- it has happened only nine times all season (Edwin Diaz and Jerry Blevins did it twice, plus Jose Alvarez, Peter Moylan, Hansel Robles, Fernando Salas and Nick Vincent). Knebel had thrown 44 pitches over his three outings. Here's how many those others had thrown in their first three outings:
Mariners manager Scott Servais used Diaz twice for a fourth day despite similar pitch totals to Knebel. He's also the most comparable pitcher to Knebel, a hard-throwing closer. If there was ever a game to use Knebel for a fourth straight game, this would have been it. (To be fair, Jeffress wasn't hit.)
Anyway, the NL Central race is just about over, but the wild card is still in the play. The Brewers remain a game behind the Rockies. I predict Knebel, Swarzak and Hader will be available if needed Friday.
Wild-card winner of the night. You know how this is going to end, America. Baseball writers, you might as well reserve your World Series hotel rooms in St. Louis right now. The Rockies lost 3-0 to the Padres, the Brewers lost, and the Cardinals are now just 1.5 behind the Rockies for the second wild card.
Wild-card loser of the night. The Angels lost 4-1 to the Indians in an afternoon game, and then the Twins pounded the hapless Tigers 12-1. So the Angels dropped 2.5 behind the Twins and have actually been caught by the Rangers, who completed a three-game sweep of the Mariners. Hmm. Cardinals-Rangers World Series?
Indians win again. I just mentioned that. Francisco Lindor hit a three-run homer in the game, his 32nd, and they've won 27 of 28 games, which is an incredible thing to type. Here's another to look at it:
Ballgame. Tribe 4, Halos 1.— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) September 21, 2017
Lindor's surge during this streak -- he has hit .349 with 11 home runs and 27 RBIs -- is earning him some MVP talk. I'm going to disagree. The entire season counts. Jose Ramirez has an OBP 30 points higher and slugging percentage 64 points higher with good defensive metrics while playing two positions. Ramirez is still the best MVP candidate on the Indians, although Lindor has maybe climbed into the top five or six overall.
Jose Bautista's Blue Jays career might be winding down. The Royals beat the Jays 1-0 as Jason Vargas and four relievers combined on a two-hitter. Bautista hit cleanup, as he has been doing since late August but went 0-for-4.
At one point, the fans in right field starting chanting his name, as if their collective will alone could summon some greatness from Bautista. Back in spring training, the popular story was Bautista was poised for a big season, ready to prove everyone who ignored him in free agency had made a mistake. He was forced to take a one-year deal from Toronto.
Instead, he has had a miserable season, hitting .203/.309/.369. Injuries aren't an excuse, as he has played 148 of the Jays' 153 games. Manager John Gibbons moved him from second or third in the lineup to leadoff back in late June in an attempt to get going, and then to cleanup. Bautista never did get going. Of 148 qualified hitters, Bautista ranks 139th in wOBA. Once one of the most feared hitters in the game, he has been one of the worst in 2017.
As Dave Cameron wrote a couple days ago on FanGraphs, this could be it for Bautista. He turns 37 in October, will be coming off a bad season and has limited defensive value, and nobody wanted him last offseason. There's certainly the sense that at the minimum his Blue Jays career is coming to an end:
Gibbons says #BlueJays dugout would love to see another memorable Jose Bautista moment this weekend. "I know everybody's rooting for him"— Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith) September 22, 2017
The Blue Jays wrap up their home schedule this weekend against the Yankees before finishing with a road trip to Boston and New York. Let's hope he gives Blue Jays fans one final home run.