Burnes Burned, Arizona Tops Milawukee in Hard-Pfaadt Contest

Corbin Burnes
Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

It looked like the mismatch of all mismatches. Brandon Pfaadt is not a playoff ace, to put it mildly. The Diamondbacks rookie struggled mightily in his first taste of the majors; though he’s undoubtedly a top prospect, he scuffled his way to a 5.72 ERA and 5.18 FIP. He was better after a midseason demotion, but not that much better, running up a 4.22 ERA and 4.35 FIP in his second major league go-round.

On the flip side, Corbin Burnes is a Cy Young winner who righted the ship after an iffy start to the season. The Brewers gave him a light workload in September to set him up for the playoffs, and he rewarded them with a 2.51 ERA (3.15 FIP) in the month. A matchup against Zac Gallen might have been a fair fight. Instead, the Brewers spent time setting up their ace for the Game 1 start, and the Diamondbacks had to improvise after a furious push to the playoffs.

Naturally, then, you can imagine how the first inning went. The Brewers scored a run before Pfaadt recorded an out. Tyrone Taylor, the no. 9 hitter, socked a second-inning homer. Burnes retired seven of the first eight batters he faced, the lone blemish a Christian Walker single. You could see the writing on the wall and, briefly, in my word processing software. It was just so predictable.

What’s that? You can’t predict baseball (Suzyn)? The Diamondbacks followed up a desultory first two innings by jumping all over Burnes in the third. Corbin Carroll hit a changeup to Wauwatosa (it’s a Milwaukee suburb, if you’re not in the know) to cut the lead to 3–2. Ketel Marte hit the very next pitch to West Allis (likewise) to tie things up. Gabriel Moreno did them one better and smacked a cement mixer slider to Mequon (way out in the ‘burbs, if you’re still following). Just like that, it was 4–3 Snakes.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee offense started to sputter. Pfaadt allowed a whopping seven hits in 2.2 innings, but the Arizona bullpen put out the fire and then kept turning in improbable zeroes. It’s all fun and games when you’re running a conga line of singles against an overmatched rookie, but you have to cash them in at some point, and the Brewers instead exercised every opportunity to trip over their own feet. They left two on in the first. They left the bases loaded in the third. In the fifth, they loaded the bases with no one out, put a run on the scoreboard, and still didn’t get anything to show for it when a wildly inaccurate hit-by-pitch call was overturned after review. His RBI erased, Brice Turang struck out, and Taylor lined into a double play to end the inning. They ran into outs on the basepaths, too: that double play was made possible by Willy Adames getting stuck between second and third. Christian Yelich overran second to turn an infield single into a fielder’s choice the very next inning. You know that feeling when every last thing you do goes wrong? That was Milwaukee’s offense tonight.

Staked to that narrow 4–3 lead and regularly facing down tying and go-ahead runners on the base paths, the Diamondbacks were desperate for a little breathing room. Unfortunately for them, Burnes left the game, and Craig Counsell turned to his high octane bullpen for four-plus innings of coverage. That bullpen has been one of the best in baseball all year, even if you exclude closer Devin Williams. It’s deep and versatile, with hard throwers and soft throwers and lefty specialists and slider-heavy guys and pretty much anything else you can imagine.

Most nights, that group puts you in the ground fast. Tonight, they got by with guts and gumption. Like the opposing offense, though, the Diamondbacks set the table but never ate dinner. They loaded the bases in the fourth and didn’t get a run across. They put runners on second and third with one out in the eighth, only to come up empty again.

With both teams piling up baserunners, something had to give. It finally did in the ninth inning, with the Brewers bringing in Williams to try to keep the deficit at one. In following the topsy-turvy logic of this game, where teams never score when they’re in favorable situations and the best pitchers do the worst, maybe he never stood a chance. He walked three of the first four batters he faced, then gave up a laser beam two-run double to Walker, providing the Diamondbacks some breathing room.

They didn’t need it. It might have been Opposite Night for a lot of the pitchers in this game, but Paul Sewald looked unaffected. He struck out William Contreras on three pitches — good morning! Carlos Santana swung at the first pitch and lofted a harmless fly ball to center — good afternoon! Sewald then drilled Mark Canha on the arm to put a runner on board — wait, did I start writing this section too soon? But no, Canha is simply a wizard at attracting HBPs, a power that is seemingly greater than any pitcher’s command. Facing Sal Frelick and his lack of dark magic, Sewald recorded another lazy fly out — good night!

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The only Brewers pitchers who gave up runs are their two best ones. The Diamondbacks struggled to build a bullpen all year, with the worst full-season numbers of any playoff relief corps and the second-worst in the second half (the Rangers were truly awful down the stretch). They were called upon in the third inning and didn’t allow a run.

Or maybe it was supposed to happen exactly this way. The Brewers struggled to score all year. Their offense improved somewhat after the trade deadline, but not by a lot; this team is built around pitching and defense. They aren’t going to have much chance of winning when Burnes and Williams give up six runs. That’s just not how things work in the Cream City.

On Arizona’s side, things were confusing in different ways. They stole two bases on the night but got thrown out twice. They did all their early scoring via home runs despite finishing 22nd in the majors in homers on the year, only a single dinger ahead of Milwaukee. The offense, theoretically based on young fast types, was bombs and bad baserunning instead.

In the end, the win is all that counts. And while this game set up poorly for the Diamondbacks, Wednesday sets up quite well. Gallen will be on the hill, and thanks to Brandon Woodruff’s unfortunate and unfortunately timed shoulder injury, the Brewers haven’t even announced a starter. To make matters worse, Williams threw 31 pitches in his disastrous appearance, so he won’t be at full strength. It’s hard to imagine a worse situation for Milwaukee.

If Game 1 taught me anything, though, it’s that my imagination is not sufficient to explain baseball. Corbin Carroll can get caught stealing. Corbin Burnes can give up more runs than Brandon Pfaadt. Devin Williams can look mortal, and Kevin Ginkel can look like Devin Williams. It’s a wild sport. The future is yet to be written. But the Brewers are running out of time, and they’ll head back to the park on Wednesday with their backs against the wall and in a disadvantageous starting pitching matchup.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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5 months ago

Obviously they’re more than capable of turning things around and winning the next two (especially against a weak playoff team like Arizona), but this 2023 Brewer team has all the same issues that have plagued them in recent years. They just don’t hit enough to be a top tier contender, even with Burnes, Woodruff, Peralta, and Hader/Williams. They haven’t scored more than three runs in a postseason game since 2018, when Yelich was at his peak.

They had the Base Runs record of an 85 win team with a +36 run differential this season – they needed a hefty amount of luck just to win the division. Arizona is even worse, so the Brewers still have a decent shot, but they would be completely outmatched by the Dodgers and pretty big underdogs if they advance.

Blue Shoesmember
5 months ago
Reply to  ascheff

This doesn’t exactly detract from your point, but the Brewers did score 4 runs in game 4 of the 2021 NLDS.

5 months ago
Reply to  ascheff

I have been banging this drum for about three years now but the Brewers’ decision not to go all in while they still had Burnes / Woodruff / Adames under contract meant that they were wasting the best opportunity they would have to make noise in the playoffs.

Now they are going into an offseason where all of them are coming off disappointing seasons (in Woodruff’s case, due to injury) and an offseason where the only major offensive upgrades are Ohtani and Bellinger. So now they get to run back the same uninspired position player group and face another early playoff exit or sell when everyone’s value is lowest for performance reasons. There are no good options here.