Offensive Woes Put Brewers on Brink of Elimination After Game 3 Shutout

Freddy Peralta was cruising. He had thrown four shutout innings, allowing three hits (and only three batted balls over 100 mph), walking one and striking out five on just 57 pitches. Ian Anderson was arguably even better: five scoreless frames, three hits allowed, and six strikeouts. But with a chance to put something on the board in a scoreless game during a series where runs have been scarce, both managers pulled their starters, who both seemingly had plenty left in the tank, to take a shot at creating instant offense. It didn’t work out for the Brewers, but it worked out wonderfully for the Braves, and that combination of outcomes is why Atlanta now has a 2–1 series lead thanks to a 3–0 victory on Monday afternoon at home.

The game might not have had many runs, but it certain had plenty of drama in the first four innings. Atlanta blew a golden opportunity in the second inning when, with runners on first and third with one out, Travis d’Arnaud lofted a fly ball to left field. Neither deep nor shallow, it was still enough to serve as a sacrifice fly to give the Braves an early lead. But nobody told Adam Duvall on first, or, to be fair in sharing the blame, Austin Riley on third. Once Christian Yelich caught the ball, Riley broke for home — not lollygagging it by any stretch, but not full effort either. That proved to be critical, as Duvall, for reasons only he possibly understands (or maybe even now doesn’t), tried to go from first to second. Yelich threw Duvall out before Riley touched home, and the game remained scoreless.

The Brewers, meanwhile, didn’t come close to getting on the board until the pivotal fifth inning, when an Omar Narváez double — only Milwaukee’s third extra-base hit of the series — gave the team runners at second and third to begin the top of the frame. Dansby Swanson made an exceptional play (one of two on the afternoon) on a blistering ground ball off the bat of Lorenzo Cain for the first out, and with Peralta due to hit, the game had its first inflection point. Craig Counsell’s decision was to pull his effective starter for pinch-hitter Daniel Vogelbach.

Vogelbach, though, grounded into a fielder’s choice that resulted in an out at home. Kolten Wong then smacked a hard line drive with an expected batting average of .700, but right at first baseman Freddie Freeman. For the 20th time in 21 innings (and now 25 of 26), the Brewers put up another zero.

The removal of Peralta didn’t work on a run-scoring level, and it failed on a run-prevention one as well, as the first man out of the bullpen, Adrian Houser, simply didn’t have it. Two quick singles put Brian Snitker in a similar situation as Counsell in the top half of the frame, and the decision was the same: pull the starter, replacing Anderson with Joc Pederson. But after getting a swing and a miss on an elevated fastball, Houser went back to the well with the same pitch, and Pederson didn’t miss it, mashing a three-run home run (one which gave Atlanta the highest-scoring inning of the series). The Braves cruised from there as a quartet of relievers finished the job, each delivering a scoreless inning.

Counsell’s strategy was defensible. His bullpen has been strong all year, and lifting Peralta would leave him available in relief for one or two innings if a Game 5 became necessary. More importantly, Milwaukee needed to score runs, as its offense has gone AWOL in the postseason — though it’s not as if the Brewers were all that present in the regular season, either. While they finished sixth in the NL in runs scored, they also ranked just 11th in OPS and wRC+, and even that mediocre performance needed in-season boosts from Willy Adames, Eduardo Escobar and Rowdy Tellez to avoid a worse finish.

The problems are myriad. Yelich never got going. Cain isn’t a star anymore. Jackie Bradley Jr. was a disaster at the plate, and Keston Hiura generated more questions than answers as the team’s first baseman of the future. With one of the best rotations in the game and arguably the best manager of bullpens in all of baseball, the Brewers didn’t need all that many runs to be a very good team, but they certainly needed some runs, and that just hasn’t happened in the playoffs. Tellez’ dramatic home run in the seventh inning of Game 1 off of Charlie Morton remains the only time in 26 innings that the Brewers have crossed the plate. Here is the back of the baseball card for Milwaukee after today’s loss:

Milwaukee Brewers NLDS Team Batting
91 2 16 3 0 1 2 6 33 1 0 .176 .242 .242 .484

Obviously, that should generate more than two runs, but a miserable 0-for-16 with runners in scoring position adds insult to the offensive injuries.

There is no one player to blame for this kind of full-team failure; every Brewer regular has at least one hit, but Adames, with four, is the only one with more than two. The Braves have not only prevented hits — Swanson and Riley in particular have done terrific work on the left side of the infield — but also prevented balls in play at all for some of Milwaukee’s biggest names: Adames, Yelich, Escobar and Avisaíl García have combined for 23 whiffs in 44 plate appearances.

For much of the 2021 season, the talk around the Milwaukee Brewers was how well they were positioned for a postseason run thanks to arguably the best 1-2-3 rotation combo in the business. Those starters have done their job against Atlanta, allowing just three runs on ten hits over an aggregate of 16 innings, good for a 1.69 ERA. What wasn’t talked about enough was a fringy offense, and it’s the latter that has the Brewers on the brink of elimination without any of that magical starting trio available in anything but emergency relief use in Game 4 on Tuesday afternoon.

In wrapping up Game 1 of the ALDS between the Rays and the Red Sox, I noted that however inventive or even correct the pitching strategies of Alex Cora were, none of it mattered at all if his team couldn’t score. Boston’s bats have come to life in a big way, though; now Milwaukee can just hope for the same. We can debate all day as to whether or not Counsell should have pulled Peralta, but in the end, nine more goose eggs on the scoreboard made the argument irrelevant.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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Below are the combined lines for the Braves and Brewers pitching staffs.
Line 1: 0.69 ERA, 26 IP, 16 Hits Allowed, 2 ER, 1 HR, 6 BB, 2 HBP, 33 SO.
Line 2: 2.42 ERA, 26 IP, 19 Hits Allowed, 7 ER, 3 HR, 10 BB, 26 SO.

7 pitchers have appeared for the Braves. 9 pitchers have appeared for the Brewers. Only 3 out of these 16 pitchers have allowed any runs at all. It’s been a very well pitched series by both teams.