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MLB

The Brewers Look Shaken But Not Lost

Eric Lauer pitches
Harry How/Getty Images

Though the competition in the NL Central has been nothing like the West or East this year, the Brewers still enjoyed a pretty brilliant opening to their 2022. Coming off their third straight trip to the playoffs without a series win, a well-rounded lineup of hitters combined with an intimidating pitching staff bookended by Corbin Burnes and Josh Hader made Milwaukee the team to beat within their own division. At the end of May, they held a three-game lead over the Cardinals. The Brewers were nobody’s top story, but they looked primed to take another shot at October glory.

Right now, however, even with three wild cards per league, the Brewers sit on the outside looking in, 1.5 games back of the Padres and a whole five games behind a scary St. Louis squad that’s slugged its way to the top of the division. Since that strong entry into the season, the Brewers have gone a mere 33-37, as a rash of injuries to guys like Freddy Peralta, Omar Narváez, and several others seriously hurt their depth and left them unable to keep pace.

The most emphatic before and after moment, though, feels like the Aug. 2 trade deadline, since which the Brewers are just 8-11. While St. Louis beefed up, most notably through the addition of the newly unhittable Jordan Montgomery, Milwaukee’s biggest move saw them send away Hader, their star reliever, in a swap that netted the struggling Padres closer Taylor Rogers, a couple of prospects, and a floundering starter in Dinelson Lamet, who’s already off the team.

Trading Hader was a defensible baseball move, though it was clearly done to soothe the fear of paying him more money down the line. The long-haired 28-year-old was a dominant presence out of the pen in 2021, and didn’t allow a run in his first 19 appearances in 2022, but he showed some worrying cracks in his game in June and July, particularly as he suffered three losses in a five-game span heading into the all-star break. Shutdown closer is a notoriously tough role to hold for a long period of time, and Hader’s worsening slump with the Padres shouldn’t give the Brewers any seller’s remorse. But as Rogers, in turn, has failed to benefit from his own change of scenery, it sounds like Brewers players are still upset by the message sent by the trade. Lauer, specifically, voiced his frustration with the way Hader’s departure went down on Sunday. From MLB.com:

“There was a shock factor to it,” Lauer said. “Everybody was taken aback by it a little bit. As far as who we have in the clubhouse and what we have here, I don’t think we’re in any worse position to win as many games as we should. The only thing I can think of was, from the top down it seemed like there was a weird behind-the-scenes message that was sent that a lot of people didn’t jive with.

“It didn’t send us the right message from the upstairs people trying to say, like, ‘We’re doing this and we’re trying to put you guys in the best position and we’re trying to win right now with you guys.’ It seemed more of a, ‘We’re trying to develop for the future.’”

“Afterward, there was no communication to the clubhouse [about] what changed in the clubhouse. It’s kind of like it was shrugged off,” Lauer added. “There’s a certain vibe in the clubhouse, and when a dynamic like that changes, it’s something that needs to be addressed. And it just never was addressed to us. We just kind of left it.”

Lauer seems understanding of Hader’s recent decline, noting that the roster isn’t in a worse position to win than before. But he does speak to an oft-overlooked aspect of baseball trades: When a front office sends away a cornerstone guy who, to use a cliche, shows up for work every day, and doesn’t meaningfully improve the team in doing so, that’s going to cause some resentment in the locker room. Change just for the sake of change is rarely something that a baseball player invites, and Lauer’s honesty illuminates the frustration many Brewers must feel as they try to chase down a division rival without the ability to turn to the closer that was so crucial in their 95 wins just a season ago. (Some important context for Lauer’s comments is that the Brewers had just lost to the Cubs in extras after allowing a tying run in the bottom of the ninth.) This deadline it was Hader; which useful player is it going to be next summer?

But, to use another cliche, the best thing Lauer could do is go out and lead by example. He noted himself that “winning solves all problems,” and in his start on Monday he reached out and grabbed that W with a tone-setting five innings against the usually unstoppable Dodgers hitters. In the 4-0 victory, Lauer and the Brewers bullpen became the first pitchers to shut the Dodgers out in Los Angeles this year, and a solo home run from Luis Urías in the fourth, plus three insurance runs in the ninth, were enough to build some positive momentum for this team.

I’d be lying if I said Lauer was dominant. He struck out just two of the 21 batters he faced, gave up five hits and two walks, and had to slip out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth. Even in just the second inning, he would have lost the shutout had it not been for this great throw out of left field from Christian Yelich.

But whether or not the Brewers actually outplayed the Dodgers for most of this game is irrelevant. What mattered is that they needed a win like this for their own psyche, to show that, after dropping two out of three to the lowly Cubs and falling farther out of first place than they’ve been all year, they could be competitive again when they play their best against the best. The Cardinals, at the rate they’re going, look to be dang near uncatchable. But to make the playoffs, and be a threat to advance, the Brewers don’t necessarily need to catch the Cardinals. They might just need to have a little more confidence in themselves than their front office apparently did.

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