Brewers gain upper hand by taking care of business at home against Rockies
MILWAUKEE — No one would ever go there, of course, because a professional baseball player would rather forfeit a fistful of paychecks than admit there was a must-win game on the schedule.
But there simply is no denying the enormity of the last two games for the Milwaukee Brewers. If they weren’t must-win games, they were the next closest thing, mostly because of where the Brewers are headed next.
Their roster made up largely of playoff newbies, the Brewers opened their National League Division Series against the Colorado Rockies this week with two games at Miller Park. Those games between two of baseball’s hottest teams figured to be tough enough to win, but hanging ominously over the best-of-five series was the notion that the Brewers would face a daunting task in games three and four at the most unique stadium in the majors, Coors Field.
Colorado’s thin air affects pitches and makes batted balls fly farther, the spacious outfield adds to Coors’ reputation as a hitter’s paradise, the powerful Rockies are built to bludgeon opponents at home and they have their two best starters — German Marquez and Kyle Freeland — lined up for the games Sunday and Monday. Put it all together and it meant Milwaukee couldn’t afford to head west with even a 1-1 record. For the Brewers, a split at Miller Park would not have been coming out even, it would have been coming out behind.
Against that backdrop, the Brewers’ 4-0 victory over the Rockies in a tense, tight game Friday at Miller Park was enormously impressive. And turning their home-field advantage into a sweep of the Rockies — they won 3-2 in 10 innings Thursday — showed that they could handle the pressure of must-win games and come out on top.
“We worked hard for home-field advantage,” second baseman Travis Shaw said. “That’s what we earned and, when you play at home, you need to win those games. (Thursday) was a huge win for us, especially after blowing (a 2-run lead) in the ninth, and (Friday) we held serve again. We did exactly what we needed to do.”
Of course, being up 2-0 is a tremendous advantage. Despite taking care of business at home, however, the Brewers know that advantage is nowhere near as commanding as it appears, even in a short series.
For one thing, the teams are evenly matched as both games were well-pitched and the outcome was in doubt until the late innings. And the peculiarities of Coors can be a great equalizer for the Rockies.
Still, the playoff experience the Brewers gained in the first two games will count for something as they try to close out the series in Denver.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” Shaw said. “I’ve seen it happen many times. There’s still a lot of work to be done. They play well at home, they have their two best pitchers going the next two games, so we still have a lot of work in front of us.”
What they did in the first two games was a sign to all that the Brewers should be up to the task. They pitched brilliantly from start to finish in both games and, thanks mostly to veteran third baseman Mike Moustakas, came through with enough clutch hits to put away the Rockies twice.
The greatest concern is the scary number of runners the Brewers have left on base so far, going 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position Thursday and 4-for-14 Friday. As the tension mounted in both games, however, they never caved in despite squandering one scoring opportunity after another.
“The story of the series so far is how we’ve pitched,” manager Craig Counsell said. “We’ve continued to make pitches.”
The Brewers shut out the Rockies’ potent offense in 18 of the 19 innings, with only a two-run, ninth-inning hiccup by elite closer Jeremy Jeffress marring the effort. And Jeffress more than made amends by pitching the final two innings Friday after entering the game with a 1-0 lead.
“It’s incredible what these guys have done,” Moustakas said. “To limit that offense to two runs, it’s huge. Those guys over there are an unbelievable offense, an unbelievable team. For us to be able to come out of here with them only scoring two, they’ve done a phenomenal job.”
The hitters have some work to do, though, especially since the games figure to be higher-scoring at Coors. Still, winning games — nine in a row, 24 of 31 since Aug. 29 — with a great deal on the line every night has helped the Brewers cope with playoff pressure.
“We’re extremely confident,” Shaw said. “We’ve played really well. We still have some room to improve, too. Offensively, we haven’t played as good as we’ve wanted to. We’ve left a lot of guys on base, a lot of guys in scoring position. The opportunities are there and we’ll eventually cash them in.”
Though statistics say the Rockies mash the ball at Coors and Freeland has been all but unbeatable there, the Brewers downplayed the stadium’s effect. They know the Rockies’ bats will perk up at home, but they don’t anticipate slugfests in what is expected to be cold, wet weather.
“They have their two best pitchers going, so I don’t want to say it’s going to be a 10-8 game,” Shaw said. “But I don’t think it’ll be a 1-0 game, either.”
At this point, it doesn’t matter. The Brewers are one win away from advancing and now it’s the Rockies who are in a must-win situation.