Within 10 days, the Brewers’ lead was completely gone. Counsell had not been aiming to appear so prescient when he gave his short speech, but the Brewers’ new reality, even after a resounding, 8-0 win over the Washington Nationals on Tuesday night, is this: With about two months of season left, they hold a slim lead of a half-game over the surging Cubs, who outpace them in experience, star power, pedigree, payroll and recent World Series titles.
“We’ve talked about this: There’s a lot of season left,” Counsell said at Nationals Park on Tuesday before the Brewers won for just the second time in their past nine games. “People want to start making grand, sweeping statements already, but there are a lot of games left. We’ve had some tough losses, a lot of late losses, but one of the strengths of this team is its resiliency.”
Later Tuesday night, the Brewers made a trade to shore up their leaky bullpen, sending an outfield prospect, Ryan Cordell, to the Chicago White Sox for right-handed reliever Anthony Swarzak, who is likely to slot into the top setup role for all-star closer Corey Knebel. Under General Manager David Stearns, the Brewers had built one of the top farm systems in the game, and with the Swarzak deal they sacrificed a small part of their future for a better chance to win now.
There could be additional deals to come ahead of Monday’s nonwaiver trade deadline, with the Brewers frequently linked to Detroit Tigers lefty Justin Wilson and Oakland A’s right-hander Sonny Gray, among other potential targets. But any major acquisition has to be weighed against the Brewers’ future hopes. Four months ago, no one expected this to be a go-for-it season in Milwaukee, and only the play of its current members has made it so.
Counsell played for the 2008 Brewers team that pulled off a blockbuster deadline trade for CC Sabathia and rode him to the playoffs via the wild card. But nearly a decade later, as a sage old skipper of 46 years old, he is preaching self-reliance: that the Brewers’ solutions are already contained in their own clubhouse.
“We weren’t supposed to be [contending] at all, so for us to be in this position shows the level of talent in this room,” third baseman Travis Shaw said on Tuesday. “We just need to get back to what we were doing before the break. We’re confident of the people here, whether we make [another] move or not.”
Still, no matter how large the Brewers’ lead grew earlier this month — reaching its peak of 5½ games on the last day of the season’s first half, July 9 — there was plenty of skepticism around the game about their staying power. Part of it was their youth and questionable depth, and part of it was the identity of the team 90 miles south that was chasing them.
Everybody suspected the Cubs would eventually beef up their roster with a big trade and eventually catch fire. Both happened immediately after the break, with the Cubs’ trade for lefty Jose Quintana and the stretch of nine wins in 11 games to open the second half.
“We know the standings,” Shaw said on Tuesday, “but if we’re looking at the Cubs in July, then that’s just wishful thinking [and] begging for something good to happen. That’s not a good thing to fall into as a team. You don’t want to scoreboard-watch in July. That’s being hopeful and not being confident in yourself.”
Added Eric Thames: “It’s like we’re starting a battle. We know it now. If we keep losing, we’ll be in second or even third place. The guys are kind of fired up to keep it going.”
If the mission of holding off the Cubs was destined to be a difficult, harrowing one, as Counsell predicted, it was in keeping with the Brewers’ own composition. With a few exceptions, they are a collection of castoffs, self-made successes and reclamation projects. Their Opening Day payroll of $63 million was the lowest in the majors. Some nights, they start a pair of waiver-claim pickups, Hernan Perez and Jesus Aguilar, in the middle of their lineup. Thames, a breakout star in the first half, was signed off a three-year stint in Korea.
“That’s part of our story,” Counsell said. “It hasn’t been easy for any of these guys in how they got here. It’s a group of guys coming from different places, some of them passed off, frankly, by their organizations. Most of them haven’t gotten here through an easy road, so I don’t think they were ever expecting this to be easy.”
It was never going to be easy for the Brewers, but with their lead dwindling and the Cubs making their move, they can be excused for wondering why it has to be so hard.