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Tom Oates: Thanks to roster upgrades, Brewers really do look like contender

September 6, 2018

MILWAUKEE — After a weekend in which they traded for just about everyone except Khalil Mack, the Milwaukee Brewers returned to Miller Park with one thing on their minds — a playoff berth.

Despite muddling their way through the middle portion of the season, the Brewers woke up on Labor Day a half-game ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League wild card race. They were also five games behind the Chicago Cubs in the Central Division, but, with the Cubs in town for a three-game series and another three-game set in Chicago next week, they have at least an outside chance of getting back into the division race over the final four weeks.

Milwaukee took a first step in that direction with a 4-3 victory over Chicago in a drama-filled game Monday. But while beating the Cubs is always high on their priority list, the Brewers know that’s not the most important thing right now.

“We know we’ve got to win the series against them to realistically have a shot against them concerning the division,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “But there’s two ways to get in from our perspective and the other way for us just involves racking up wins. Racking up wins any way you can.”

Indeed, the second way for the Brewers to get into the playoffs is the wild card and all they have to do to secure one of the two spots is to keep on winning games. It no longer matters which teams the Brewers beat, only that they stay ahead of the handful of teams chasing them. Coupled with a Cardinals loss, their victory Monday put them 1.5 games in front.

But it gets better: After building a roster loaded with experience and depth over the past five weeks, the Brewers finally have the talent they need to stay in front all the way to the end.

“I like what Milwaukee has done in regards to both bolstering their lineup and depth,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Their bench is fabulous.”

No, general manager David Stearns didn’t go out and get an elite starting pitcher as Brewers fans wanted. Then again, elite starters were few and far between this year.

Instead, Stearns acquired veteran hitters and pitchers to fill in holes and push the team to another level. The Brewers expanded their roster to 34 players for September, but from one through 25 this is a better roster than either of Milwaukee’s two playoff teams in this century. And in winning their past four series and then opening with a win over the Cubs, the Brewers are on a roll for the first time since May.

“There have been a lot of changes,” said pitcher Zach Davies, who made his first start since May 29. “I know that every guy in the clubhouse is happy to be here. Every guy in the clubhouse is just going to be ready when their name is called upon. The atmosphere, the guys we have in this clubhouse, it’s incredible. It’s a great group of guys. What they bring to the ballpark is amazing. It just shows, being to be able to grind out this game and come back and end up winning it in the bottom of the ninth.”

The Brewers topped off their roster reconstruction prior to the waiver trade deadline Friday night, adding outfielder Curtis Granderson, starter Gio Gonzalez and relief pitcher Xavier Cedeno via trades. At the earlier trade deadline a month ago, they acquired third baseman Mike Moustakas, infielder Jonathan Schoop and reliever Joakim Soria.

More than anything, the trades and the expanded September roster have given Counsell options — off the bench, in the bullpen, even in the starting rotation with Gonzalez and Davies, who pitched five strong innings Monday after missing three months with injuries.

“We’re playing by a different set of rules this month,” Counsell said. “What we’ve tried to do, and I think what other teams try to do, is you create roles for players and they’re smaller roles for a lot of guys. But you create roles to cover a lot of different scenarios. That’s what I feel like we did Friday night. And then we also acquired options as depth and options to use going forward in bigger roles.”

The victory over the Cubs was Exhibit A in how those moves have helped. When the game began, Counsell had Moustakas, Granderson, infielder Travis Shaw and outfielders Eric Thames, Keon Broxton and Dominago Santana, among others, on his loaded bench.

That firepower helped in the eighth inning when Counsell used Granderson and Moustakas, two left-handed batters, as pinch hitters against right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. Granderson singled and eventually scored the game-tying run when Moustakas walked with the bases loaded. In the bottom of the ninth, Broxton came in as a pinch runner and scored the winning run from third on Christian Yelich’s ground ball.

“It’s a playoff team,” said Moustakas, who knows playoff teams after playing for Kansas City in two World Series. “It’s a great ballclub. With everything they already had here and then with the additions that we’ve made, with Gio and Curtis, it’s a fun team to be on. A lot of veteran presence, especially with Curtis putting together great at-bats. With the way everyone goes about their business, it’s a fun team to be on.”

It’s also a good team to be on, especially now that it is playoff caliber.

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