Even before this weekend’s chaotic finish, we certainly knew the 2020 MLB season would be memorable.
For over a decade, I’ve been maintaining a “Today In Brewers History” calendar, a collection of notable transactions, games and moments, which I turned into a standalone feature on Patreon this year. The last few years have been well-represented in that space, of course, but they can’t compare to 2020’s array of franchise firsts, high and low points.
To recap the 2020 Brewers’ regular season, what follows is a brief look at the 22 items added to the Today in Brewers History calendar this year. The good, the bad and the weird are all here from a season no one could have seen coming.
Remember when we used to be able to make long term plans without including phrases like “virus permitting?” The Brewers and Christian Yelich almost certainly do, as back in March they committed to spend the next nine years together. The deal added seven years to his existing contract and was valued at $215 million. At the time, some of us wrote about the records Yelich was bound to break during nine more 162-game seasons in Milwaukee. It was a simpler time.
A rare Brewers spring training night game turned out to be the last chance fans would have to see the team in action for months: The Dodgers beat the Brewers 4-1 in a rain-abbreviated contest, and the rain continued into the next day and washed out a scheduled split-squad doubleheader. By the time the rains stopped, MLB had suspended spring training and the season was on hold indefinitely.
While still waiting for word on the 2020 season, the Brewers broke a record that would have seemed impossible just months earlier: This was the 257th day since their last regular season game in September of 2019, the longest stretch without a game in franchise history. The only other time they had gone this long without playing was following the 1994 strike, which ended the season early and delayed Opening Day in 1995. They broke that record the next day and piled onto it in the weeks to come.
After months of delays and friction between players and owners, the Brewers finally reported to Miller Park for a second round of spring training, which came to be known as “Summer Camp.” 45 players were invited to participate in 23 days of preparations for an abbreviated season, which included the “Blue-Gold World Series” of intrasquad games and one exhibition contest against the White Sox on July 22.
The Brewers started the shortest season in their franchise’s history and the shortest MLB season since 1878 with a 3-0 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field, an offensive performance that would become a trend. Fans got an early introduction to one of 2020’s rule changes on this day: With the designated hitter being used in both leagues, Ryan Braun became the first DH to bat at Wrigley Field in that facility’s 104-year history.
Staring down the barrel of a 1-3 start to the season, the Brewers responded with a comeback for the ages against the Pirates. They went to the top of the ninth trailing 5-1 but rallied to tie the game on two singles, a walk, a passed ball, a bases loaded hit batsman and Ryan Braun’s two-run double. The game eventually went to extra innings and featured some more “new rule” history: In the top of the 10th, Omar Narvaez became the first Brewer ever to start an inning on second base.
The Brewers’ home opener at Miller Park had already been delayed by four months, but it was pushed back once again on this day, as their entire series with the Cardinals was postponed after multiple members of St. Louis’ traveling party tested positive for COVID-19. The Cardinals would eventually go 16 days between games and later played ten doubleheaders to make up the lost time, including three against the Brewers.
On what would have been the second day of this series the, Brewers announced that Lorenzo Cain had opted out of the season after appearing in just five games. His departure left an unexpected gap for the Brewers in center field, where he had played 281 games over the previous two seasons.
Christian Yelich’s slow start was a big storyline of the season’s first few weeks, as he hit just .088 with a .162 on-base percentage in his first eight games. The White Sox, however, still walked him in his first two plate appearances on this day and in Yelich’s third trip he picked up an inside-the-park homer when Chicago left fielder Eloy Jimenez couldn’t track down his fly ball, then fell into the protective netting covering the stands. Yelich went 1-for-2 but walked four times and scored three runs in an 8-3 victory.
The Brewers’ offensive struggles continued through the first third of the season and their team on-base plus slugging was just .666 heading into a road series against the Twins, down over .100 points from 2019. On this day the offense couldn’t manage even that paltry production level, however, and Minnesota starter Kenta Maeda held them hitless through eight innings. After finally chasing Maeda from the game, the Brewers managed to string together three runs in the 9th to force extra innings, but lost 4-3 in the 12th.
The Brewers’ offensive woes were especially pronounced early in games. When they scored on Justin Smoak’s RBI single off Trevor Bauer of the Reds in this game, it snapped a streak of 11 consecutive games where they had been held scoreless in the first inning. All told, this year the Brewers scored just 15 times in the first and 11 times in the second inning of their 60 contests, a combined average of 0.43 runs per game. The National League average was over twice as high at 0.95.
The Brewers beat the Reds 3-2 and protected that margin of victory with one of the more unlikely defensive plays in recent memory: With the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning, Nicholas Castellanos of the Reds hit a line drive to Mat Gamel in right field. Gamel fielded the ball on the bounce and threw home to force Freddy Galvis out at the plate on a 9-2 fielder’s choice.
The Brewers quickly found themselves in the middle of a national conversation on race and policing in the events following Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha. They opted not to play that day’s scheduled game against the Reds, making them one of eight teams to postpone games that night. The next day, 14 more teams decided not to play.
When the Brewers returned to action, they made history in two more ways: Their doubleheader against the Reds was the first twin bill in Miller Park history and also featured the first two seven-inning games played at that ballpark, another of 2020’s new rules. The Brewers’ bats never got going this day, as they managed just one run across a pair of losses.
Josh Hader recorded saves in each of his first seven opportunities in 2020 and did not allow a hit in his first nine outings. Improbably, one of those streaks continued on this day but the other did not: Hader blew a save without allowing a hit against the Pirates, driving in a pair of runs with five consecutive walks. The Brewers picked him up in the bottom of the inning, however, when Eric Sogard hit a two-run, walkoff homer. Hader’s hitless streak eventually continued through his first 12 outings, a stretch of 11 ⅔ innings. Both of those are MLB records for a streak to start a season.
The Brewers’ 6-5 win over the Pirates was a special one for Craig Counsell: His 820th game as the team’s skipper made him the third-longest tenured manager in franchise history. Counsell, who is also the longest tenured active manager in the National League, will pass Ned Yost for second place if he oversees a full season in 2021, but would need to stick around through early 2023 to surpass Phil Garner’s 1,180 games.
A Brewers offense that had limped through the first two-thirds of the season broke through in the final game of a series in Detroit, where they routed the Tigers 19-0. They set a franchise record by recording 13 extra base hits in the game and both the 19 runs and 13 extra base hits were more than they had put together in any two other games this season combined. The offensive field day raised the Brewers’ team OPS by 28 points, from .690 to .718.
Two days later the Brewers’ offense was back to their old struggles, but Brandon Woodruff and two relievers combined to shut out the Cubs and give them an opportunity to win 1-0 anyway. The decisive run came on Ryan Braun’s ninth inning walkoff sac fly, which Andrew Wagner noted gave the Brewers a September walkoff win against the Cubs in four consecutive seasons.
The Brewers flirted with it enough times that it was bound to happen eventually: Alec Mills of the Cubs dominated the Crew and pitched a no-hitter, becoming the fourth pitcher ever to do it against the Brewers and the first since Justin Verlander did it in 2007. Mills was the second pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter at Miller Park and both were Cubs: Carlos Zambrano did it against the Astros in a game moved to Milwaukee following Hurricane Ike.
Through the regularly scheduled innings the next day the Brewers’ offense wasn’t a lot better: In the first game of a doubleheader against the Cardinals, the two teams were scoreless through seven and went to extras. The Cardinals scored a run in the top of the eighth, but the Brewers got two in the bottom of the frame on Ryan Braun’s double and Keston Hiura’s sac fly for the first eight inning walkoff in franchise history.
If a struggling offense was the story of the first two thirds of the Brewers’ season, this might have been the story of the final third: This season the Brewers entered nine different games with matching numbers of wins and losses and an opportunity to get above .500 with a victory, and they lost them all. This was the final game of a series against the Reds, and Trevor Bauer padded his NL Cy Young case by allowing one run across eight innings and striking out 12 while pitching on short rest.
The Brewers’ postseason chances came down to a five-game series with the Cardinals, and through three games, the odds were not in their favor. They lost on Thursday and split a doubleheader on Friday to fall to 28-30 and FanGraphs dropped their odds of making the playoffs to 24.4%, the low water mark of the season. On the second-to-last day of the campaign, however, a perfect storm of events unfolded.
The Brewers did their part, beating the Cardinals 3-0 behind a dominant performance from Brandon Woodruff. They also got a lot of help, however, as the Rays beat the Phillies and the Padres beat the Giants to knock down two teams they were chasing for the final postseason berth. Despite being just 29-30, the Brewers would go to the season’s final day controlling their own destiny.
The perfect storm, as it turns out, lasted two days. Milwaukee’s easiest path to the playoffs was a win on the final day against the Cardinals, but they came up short on that front despite turning a triple play in the eighth inning, just the eighth in franchise history. The Cardinals piled on after Brett Anderson had to leave due to injury in the third inning and won 5-2.
There was, however, a second way. The Brewers could also back into the postseason if both the Phillies and Giants lost for the third consecutive day, which they both did. When Trevor Rosenthal of the Padres got a called strike three on Giants DH Austin Slater, the Brewers got new life. Despite their 29-31 record, they’ll play in the postseason for the third consecutive season for the first time in franchise history.