MILWAUKEE – It is Saturday night and more than 39,000 fans fill nearly every seat in Miller Park to see what could be their beloved Brewers’ last stand.
Leading the division nearly wire to wire, the faltering Brewers must win the final two games of the series against the St. Louis Cardinals to pull within a game of the lead and remain relevant.
Less than 24 hours later, only a handful of fans remain as the Cardinals administer the death blow with a dominant 9-1 win, relegating Milwaukee to wild card hopeful.
Since 2011, the Cardinals have the best record in baseball in the month of September. Is it luck, or is there something more?
To Cardinal newcomer Peter Bourjos, it is real and tangible. “When we got back from Chicago (Aug. 31, after a split with the Chicago Cubs), I could feel the difference,” Bourjos said. “I could feel a rush. When we started that home stand (with the Pirates) there was a sense of urgency (a focus) that was different. I’m not saying we weren’t focused early, but this was different. The veterans on the club know what it takes to win and the rest of us just feed off that.”
Cards manager Mike Matheny does not deny that something magical happens to the Cardinals in September, and credits the veteran experience and the team’s preparation for being able to find that extra gear.
“We have experienced guys who have been there and we need their leadership,” he said. “Some teams feel like they have to do something bigger and better (in a pennant push) instead of staying the course with what works. I think that is counterproductive.”
While the Brewers surged with a 20-7 start and led the division while the Redbirds treaded water for four months, Adam Wainwright never lost faith and knew his teammates would put together a run.
“I knew we hadn’t played our best ball yet,” he said after a dominant performance in Sunday’s shellacking of a stumbling Brewers club. “I expected this to happen. I like where we’re at right now.”
Matheny said the success in September and October is a result of yearlong preparation. He said players begin their season’s work in November and early December with strength and conditioning drills, diet, agility and other training for the long season. “In October, it’s really a test of endurance,” he said of the wear and tear a ballplayer takes over the course of 160+ games. “These guys have done as well as I’ve ever seen in taking care of themselves.”
The September tradition is passed on to minor leaguers who are rewarded with a September call up to the big club. Matheny said the team looks for players who can fill a specific role such as speed, pinch-hitting, short relief to help in a win, but also as a reward for a good season.
“We get to see guys (for the future),” he said. “And they get to see guys in a play-off atmosphere; they see what they are doing, what they are talking about, how they go about their preparation. They get a taste of the post-season.”
Part of the Cardinals’ formula centers on keeping pressure on the other team by aggressive base running, patient at-bats and pounding the strike zone. Sunday’s finale against the Brewers was classic September Cardinals as the relentless Cardinal attack caused three Milwaukee errors and the speed of Bourjos and Kolten Wong distracted pitchers, yielding favorable hitting counts. On offense, superior defensive positioning by the Redbirds constantly thwarted the Brewers.
That also was no accident as Matheny pointed out. The Cards’ front office collects data on batter tendencies that are passed along to coaches Jose Oquendo and Chris Maloney who position infielders and outfielders. Sunday was a clinic in how effective that could be as Milwaukee ripped liners and long fly balls right to waiting Cardinals.
Now, with just 19 games left, St. Louis has just three games remaining against a team with a winning record (the Brewers). That is not consequential to Matheny.
“We are not in the mindset of (backing off) because a team is below .500 he said. “We look at it as an opportunity to do something. We have a target on our back (as defending division champion) and we’re not afraid of it.”