This deep into the season, there aren’t many mysteries in regards to teams’ strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and overall ability. Against a division rival, and there are even fewer unknowns about both teams leading into a series.
So heading into Monday’s opener of the Brewers’ series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field, it was no mystery as to what they needed to do start the four-game set off with a victory. It wasn’t flashy, but the Brewers played good, sound baseball, exposing the flaws of a last-place Cubs team that is young and exciting, yet heavily flawed. In short, the Brewers did exactly what was needed to beat a good pitcher and a team 17 games under .500.
It started with Yovani Gallardo on the bump for Milwaukee. Noted leisurely Wisconsinite Charlie Tritschler asked if we would get Good Yo or Bad Yo on Monday night, as we have seen both pitchers throughout the season.
Gallardo bounced back from arguably his worst outing of the season in which he allowed 13 Giants to reach base in four innings, holding the Cubs to one run on six hits in seven innings, striking out six.
On Monday, Gallardo was facing a Cubs offense whose wRC+ of 88 ranks them 26th in baseball. They struggle to manufacture runs at times, to say the least. While the Brewers started six players with a wRC+ higher than 110, the Cubs had three, one of which had a sample size of 29 plate appearances coming into the game.
Gallardo issued no walks to the Cubs, which is almost always a very telling sign when he’s on the mound. In the five starts that he hasn’t walked a batter this year, he’s only allowed three runs in 33.2 innings, good for a .76 ERA.
Not allowing free base runners was just part of the picture behind Gallardo’s dominance Monday night. He quieted the Cubs bats that punish mistakes, using their aggression against them, scattering the six hits over seven innings. He surrendered only two well-hit balls (as measured by ESPN’s Heat Index database), as opposed to six of them in his last start.
Below is the swing rate by Cubs batters against Gallardo on Monday night on the left, compared to league average on the right. Where Gallardo really thrived was off the outside corner to right-handers and coming in on the hands of left-handers. Gallardo’s first four outs of the game came off that edge of the plate
In the bottom of the third inning after giving a single to pitcher Jake Arrieta on a meatball, Gallardo buckled down against leadoff batter Chris Coghlan. He started the lefty off with a heavy curve for a strike, then climbed the ladder, getting Coghlan to foul off a 91 mph fastball just above the letters. Ahead 0-2, Gallardo reset, throwing another curve at the bottom of the zone that was fouled off. Having already teased Coghlan with a fastball up earlier in the at-bat that he was nowhere near squaring up, Gallardo reached back and climbed the ladder even higher, as Coghlan chased some eye-level eye candy for the strikeout.
Offensively, the Brewers were going up against Arrieta, which has been no easy task for opposing batters this season. The right hander entered Monday’s start worth 3.3 WAR and a 2.24 FIP in 103 innings, good for fourth and second, respectively, among NL pitchers with at least 100 innings. With a 48% ground ball rate and a ridiculously-low 3.7% HR/FB rate, the Brewers knew they weren’t going to get many mistakes.
Arrieta made one of those to Mark Reynolds in the second inning, and the Brewers first baseman would have hit it to Waveland, if it weren’t for the fan play of the year. Reynolds now has 20 homers on the year, with 9.5% of balls he’s put in play resulting in long balls. Of those 20 home runs, eight of them have been thrown in the same zone of the plate shown below: middle-in. So if we do a little #CurtDoesMath session here, almost four percent of all balls Reynolds has put in play are home runs from that one fraction of the zone.
Here’s Arrieta’s oopsie.
A couple notes about that screencap: 1) Holy bat speed, Batman, can Mark Reynolds turn on an inside fastball at 94 mph. 2) There’s a lot of power within that frame. 3) The girl in the front row is literally missing the greatest two-outcome hitter in the freaking history of baseball. To send a text. Or swipe right on Tinder. Or something. 4) Bro to her left in the Brewers shirtsey is fist-pumping before Reynolds even hits the ball. He is psychic. And is now the savior of the Brewers season. Someone get him a spot next to Hank the Pup at every game. 5) Which shirtsey is he wearing? Bonus points if it’s Jason Kendall or Carlos Villanueva.
Later on in the game, Will Smith faced Cubs phenom Javier Baez is a pivotal situation. With two out in the bottom of the eighth, the Brewers led 2-1 against arguably Chicago’s biggest power threat. Smith, after a torrential start to the season, has regressed significantly. Leading by a run and facing Baez, the game could have turned on one pitch. Since June, right handers were hitting .471 and slugging .912 with three homers against Smith in 34 at-bats.
But Smith did what was needed to retire Baez and send the game to the ninth. He exposed Baez’s inexperience and lack of plate discipline, refusing not only do so much as to throw the rookie a fastball strike, but to even throw him a strike at all. After a fastball inside to open the at-bat, Smith brought out the Slider of Death that we familiarized ourselves with in April. Baez chased three sliders out of the zone for a big strikeout for Smith and the Brewers.Pitch 1: Ball low-92 mph fastball Pitch 2: Strike swinging-82 mph slider (in the dirt) Pitch 3; Strike swinging-82 mph slider (low) Pitch 4: Ball low-82 mph slider (in the dirt) Pitch 5: Strike swinging-82 mph slider (low)
In the top of the ninth, the Brewers added on an insurance run off reliever Justin Grimm. Aramis Ramirez laced a two-out double to the corner and Scooter Gennett followed with a single back up the middle. We all know Ramirez runs like a pulled hammy waiting to happen, but Ed Sedar waved him around third, knowing the ball was hit to 22-year-old shortstop-turned-center-fielder Arismendy Alcantara. (I’m playing mind-reader here and giving Sedar credit for taking into account from whom the throw was coming and assuming he didn’t just pull the classic Ed Sedar impulsive windmill). The Brewers took advantage of Alcantara’s inexperience in the outfield–he was brought up a shortstop but the Cubs but moved to center in lieu of the Cubs stashing literally all the shortstop prospects in baseball in their farm system–and sent Ramirez. The throw sailed way, way, way high and off the line as Ramirez scored and the Brewers took a 3-1 lead.