You’re going into the bottom of the ninth inning, and your favorite baseball team is trailing 7-0. The game’s being played in a roughly neutral run environment, and so your team’s odds of winning are about 0.2 percent. That’s one-fifth of one percent. Maybe you’ve stopped paying close attention, and maybe you’ve stopped watching entirely, because the game is basically hopeless. It’s clearly not impossible to score at least seven runs in one inning, but it is exceedingly rare.
The first batter draws a walk. The next batter draws another walk. Now maybe the guy after that strikes out, but then a single loads the bases, and another single scores two. A walk loads the bases once more. You’re paying close attention again, if you didn’t turn the game off, because suddenly things are interesting, and your team has tons of momentum. Your team’s odds of winning with one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth of a 7-2 game are about four percent.
Many of you will have identified where this is going. The sequence described above is basically an in-game parallel to the Milwaukee Brewers’ recent stretch of success. The night of August 19, the Brewers were 54-66, nearly twice as far from the wild card as they were from the Cubs. People had long since grown accustomed to the Brewers being a disappointment and it no longer counted as news.
Now it’s September 12 and the Brewers are 71-71. More than that, they’re right back in the thick of things in the wild-card race, as the teams in front of them have struggled. The Brewers have 20 games left to make up four games in the standings, but that’s better than having 42 games left to make up 12.5 games in the standings. All the Brewers need to do is just keep doing what they’ve been doing, which sounds so simple when you say it like that.
The Brewers have won 17 of their last 22 games, including five of six against the Pirates and a healthy six of seven against the Cubs. The offense has posted an .840 OPS, and the pitching staff has posted a 3.39 ERA. The hottest teams right now in the National League are the Brewers, Phillies, and Padres. The Padres are entirely out of it, but the Brewers and Phillies have put themselves in position to have a prayer, and in fact they’re both four games behind the Cardinals for the second wild card right now.
This is where we have to start being realistic. There are two wild cards, but the first one in the NL is basically unavailable, as the Braves have a five-and-a-half-game lead. There are six teams within five games of the second wild card, and three teams ahead of the Brewers. They’re all fighting for the same thing, and while the Brewers can reassure themselves that it’s all in their hands, it really isn’t. They have three games left against teams ahead of them in the second-wild-card standings. For the Brewers to actually make the playoffs would require that a ton of things go right, only some of which the Brewers can control.
Let’s re-visit those odds from the first couple paragraphs. Let’s also click over to Cool Standings. When the Brewers were 54-66, their playoff odds were below a tenth of one percent. They are now sitting at four percent, meaning if you played out the rest of this year 25 times, 24 times you’d expect the Brewers to miss the one-game playoff. What the Brewers have going in their favor is the sensation of momentum. They feel like they can’t lose, and their fans feel like they can’t lose. What the Brewers don’t have going in their favor is actual momentum, which would be way more helpful. Maybe in a game situation, you can sort of believe in momentum, and in an opposing team getting rattled. The Brewers don’t have sustainable, dependable momentum; they just have a lot more wins than losses lately. The games are presumably more or less independent.
Another thing the Brewers have going in their favor is that they’re pretty good. The lineup can hit, and the rotation has come together even after subtracting Zack Greinke. It’s not that the Brewers don’t have a playoff-caliber team, but they’ve put themselves in a position where the playoffs are just unlikely.
So much rests on the rest of the schedule, as the best thing the Brewers can do is win as often as possible. The other teams will surely lose sometimes. We could write thousands of words on the varying strengths of remaining schedules for the wild-card contenders. Instead, know that the Brewers play the Astros three times, and the Nationals or Reds seven times. The Cardinals play nine consecutive games against the Astros or Cubs. The Pirates have seven games against the Astros or Cubs. The Phillies have four games against the Astros. The Dodgers face a tough slate the rest of the way, with a three-game Rockies exception.
The Brewers have done a fantastic job to rally to where they are, but the remaining schedule will do them no favors. They’ve done a lot of work; there’s a lot of work left to be done. Odds are it will not get done in time. Good for Brewers fans to be interested again, because now there exists a glimmer of hope, but it is a flickering glimmer and it may never become more bright.
The saddest part of all this is that the Brewers could finish close enough to regret all those earlier bullpen meltdowns. Every team blows a late lead every now and again, but not every team blows late leads like the Brewers have, and they rank second in our Meltdowns statistic. If the Brewers finish just a few games out, they can reflect on a few games they should’ve won and didn’t. That would sting, and it would sting more than it would if the Brewers weren’t close at all.
For the time being, everybody’s flying high. It feels like the Brewers can’t lose, and it feels like the playoffs are within their grasp. For the time being.