June 23, 2024

‘Relentless’ Milwaukee Brewers aren’t slowing down in another race to October

DETROIT — When Rhys Hoskins was a free agent this winter, he gave his agent a directive.

“I want a chance to win,” Hoskins said.

A longtime member of the Philadelphia Phillies, Hoskins had been in those environments. He understands what October feels like. Knows what the champagne tastes like. The desire to continue winning in part led Hoskins to where else but … Milwaukee?

Check the National League standings, and do not be taken aback at the fact that the Milwaukee Brewers led the Central division by 6 1/2 games entering play Monday. The Brewers have won this division two of the past three seasons. They have made the playoffs in five of the past six years. The organization has quietly become a pillar of proficiency, perhaps baseball’s most overlooked and understated power.

“Just a model of consistency, especially being a small-market team,” Hoskins said. “Just finding creative ways to find value at the edges. It’s always been a great brand of baseball.”

This season, the brand of baseball has been better than ever. Most nights, the Brewers play a suffocating style. They grind out at-bats. They do not concede with two strikes. They run out groundballs. Runners are constantly in motion. They treat the bases like a high-speed carousel.

“It’s not any magic anything,” first-year manager Pat Murphy said. “It’s the people we have. The type of guys that are hungry and starting to understand who they are as major-league players.”

The Brewers’ Rhys Hoskins celebrates with Sal Frelick, left, after scoring a run during the second inning of a game against the Tigers. (Brian Bradshaw Sevald / USA Today)

The Brewers’ roster is not packed with recognizable star power — though former MVP Christian Yelich is hitting .324, and William Contreras has become arguably the best catcher in all of baseball. The Brewers, however, are more defined by what they lack. Not enough power on paper? Watch as they zoom around the bases; take note as they punish any and every mistake an opponent makes.

Saturday against the Detroit Tigers, they won a 5-4 game thanks to a series of pressure-inducing plays. In the first inning, second baseman Brice Turang reached via walk. Turang, who is 23-of-24 on stolen base attempts this season, goaded Detroit starter Casey Mize into a balk. He then scored on a Yelich single.

In the third inning, Yelich hit a sacrifice fly to left field. Standing at second, Turang recognized a high throw to the infield and dashed to third, arriving safe as the Tigers had no one at the bag. He scored on a ground ball from ensuing batter Willy Adames.

In the sixth inning, rookie Jackson Chourio doubled to the left-center gap and scored Hoskins. As slow-footed Tigers rookie Justyn-Henry Malloy gathered and threw to cutoff man Javier Báez, third-base coach Jason Lane kept waving, and Blake Perkins scored from first.

“Their speed was really part of the story of the game,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said.

With players such as Hoskins adding thump, the Brewers still rank fourth among National League teams in home runs. But those small, ferocious plays best define their ethos. They lead the major leagues with 12 outs at the plate but have remained steadfast in their aggressiveness. Yelich, for example, stole home on a lazy throw back to the pitcher earlier this season. There’s proof the methodology works — the Brewers lead the majors with 9.8 baserunning runs above average, a full three runs ahead of the next-closest team.

“I’ve said it from the jump, we’re going to run every time we can,” Murphy said earlier this year. “It’s like a basketball team telling you they’re going to slow it down. That can unnerve some people. Same in baseball when you say, ‘We’re going to run.’”

Although there are concerns around the Brewers’ pitching — they currently have eight pitchers on the injured list, including top starter Brandon Woodruff and closer Devin Williams — their strengths are a testament to a team and organization built around athletes. Young players such as Turang and Sal Frelick are making sudden impacts. Yelich is hitting again. Adames, the shortstop who is a free agent after the season, entered Monday worth 2.3 fWAR and is an important part of the team’s emotional core.

“He plays with a lot of energy every night,” Yelich said. “He’s a big part of what we do here.”

The Brewers are doing this even after trading closer Josh Hader at last year’s deadline and moving ace Corbin Burnes this offseason. Their history presents an interesting discussion about how the Brewers will handle this season’s deadline. But Joey Ortiz, one of the players they acquired from the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Burnes, has a .379 on-base percentage and 2.0 fWAR.

“I think we figured out what helps make this team win, and it’s just being grinders on the field,” Ortiz said.

Brewers manager Pat Murphy has led his team to a comfortable division lead in his first year at the helm. (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

Yet this is not some years-long plan coming to fruition under consistent stewardship; the Brewers are doing this immediately after former manager Craig Counsell departed for the Chicago Cubs, and less than two years after former president of baseball operations David Stearns stepped down, eventually landing with the New York Mets.

Under the front-office leadership of Matt Arnold, the Brewers continue to identify and optimize talent as well as anyone in the sport. Under the dugout direction of Murphy — who coached Counsell at Notre Dame and served for years as his bench coach — the Brewers are playing as well as ever.

“I think they’ve found an effective way,” Hoskins said. “I’m not sure exactly what that is, and I’m not sure they want anybody to know. But I think they’ve found a really effective way to marry the front office and what goes on in the field … Obviously we have a manager who’s been in the game for many decades, so I think the baseball sense of him and the analytical sense of some of the front office people is a really good relationship that brings out a pretty good product on the field.”

Players credit the coaching staff for the intense preparation, daily meetings centered not only on planning for the opposing pitcher but also on scouring for weaknesses in the opponent, preplanning for ways to take those extra bases that can make all the difference.

To understand what makes these Brewers tick, all you have to do is look at the manager. Murphy has the words “No retreat. No Surrender” tattooed on his left forearm.

On his right wrist, he wears a black bracelet that reads: “Relentless.”

“Murph talks about that word a lot,” Hoskins said. “Being relentless up until the last pitch. We’ve been in most every game this season. I think there’s something to that.”

(Top photo of Christian Yelich: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)