MLB Playoffs: Can the Milwaukee Brewers Really Catch the St. Louis Cardinals?

Dave Radcliffe@DaveRadcliffe_Contributor IIISeptember 13, 2012

MILWAUKEE, WI - SEPTEMBER 11: Ryan Braun #8 of the Milwaukee Brewers Carlos Gomez #27 and Norichika Aoki #7 stand in the outfield as Jim Henderson warms up on the mound in the top 7th inning against the Atlanta Braves during the game at Miller Park on September 11, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Let me take you back on a trip down memory lane. It was Sept. 7, 2011, and the Milwaukee Brewers were in St. Louis taking on the division-rival Cardinals.

The Brewers were all but locked into the MLB playoffs, holding onto an 8.5 game lead in the National League Central Division with the Cardinals on the outside looking in, trailing the Atlanta Braves for the National League wildcard by 6.5 games.

It was that night when Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan took to Twitter after being ejected by crew chief Derryl Cousins for exchanging words with Cardinals starting pitcher Chris Carpenter. Morgan, clearly still in the heat of the moment, said he hoped "those crying birds [enjoy watching the] Crew in the playoffs!!! Aaaaahhhhh!!!" among other things.

Oh, Nyjer. Luckily for you, I'm eternally in your debt.

The rest, as they say, is history, as St. Louis went on to not only reach the MLB playoffs, but knock Milwaukee out in the NLCS on its way to a World Series title. It's what I consider the turning point of the 2011 season.

How the tables have turned in 2012. 

A mere speck of paint in the MLB landscape just under a month ago, the Brewers stood at a season-worst 54-66 on Aug. 19 after splitting a four-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies.

At the time, the Phillies were no masterpiece themselves, either. Both teams trailed the Pittsburgh Pirates by more than 10 games for the second wildcard. Ironically enough, they are now the two hottest teams in baseball and the biggest threats to the Cardinals—and the Pirates stand just a half-game ahead of each team.

In fact, if it weren't for the Phillies, I would feel much more confident about the prospect of the Brewers reaching the MLB playoffs. Philly is playing just as well as Milwaukee, riding a seven-game winning streak while Milwaukee has won a ridiculous 17 of 19 games at Miller Park.

The Brewers just completed a three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves, the team that currently has a hold on the first wild card slot. While it's unlikely that the Braves will relinquish their positioning, Milwaukee has proved it can play with Atlanta should those two teams happen to meet up in the one-game mini series to kick off the MLB playoffs.

I'm trying not to get ahead of myself.

While the Brewers sit only three games back of the Cardinals at the conclusion of Wednesday's play, they still need to continue their current pace to have a chance at catching the Cardinals, leapfrogging the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers, and fending off the Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks.

But do the Brewers have a genuine shot at this thing? Absolutely they do. Even as I posted my article last week about reasons we should continue watching the Brewers, Milwaukee was 6.5 games back of St. Louis and a potential playoff push wasn't even the biggest motivation for writing the story.

Well, a potential playoff push has turned into a legitimate playoff push, and it's without a doubt the main reason for this article.

How have the Brewers gotten into this situation? Certainly, it's taken a magical stretch of play, but they've received some help along the way.

Since Aug. 19, Milwaukee has gone 18-5 while the Cardinals have gone 10-12. Other contenders for the second wild card—like the Pirates, Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks—have also played losing baseball.

Let's assume the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates play .500 baseball for the remaining 19 games and the Brewers and Phillies continue playing at their current pace. Here is what the race for the second wildcard spot would look like:

Milwaukee: 87-75 — 72-71 — .497

Philadelphia: 87-75 — 72-71 — .478

St. Louis: 85-77 — 75-68 — .490

Los Angeles: 84-78 — 74-69 — .533

Pittsburgh: 82-80 — 72-70 — .472

Arizona: 81-81 — 71-72 — .460

(Projected record — Current record — remaining opponents' winning pct)

Are those the records these six teams will end up with? No. But considering how I'm giving each team the benefit of the doubt on how they will finish the season, these records aren't unrealistic—not by a long shot.

Should the Phillies and Brewers tie for the second wild card, which would be fitting for numerous reasons, they would play a one-game playoff for the right to play in—well, a one-game playoff. The game would be played in Philadelphia based on head-to-head play, which wouldn't be ideal, but...

...I'm getting ahead of myself.

And yet, I believe I've adequately supported my hypothesis. Yes, the Milwaukee Brewers really can catch the St. Louis Cardinals, or whoever happens to be holding the final NL playoff spot.

The Brewers' timely hitting has been scary good. Clutch hit after clutch hit has given the Brewers late-inning leads as the offense has felt inclined to get off to a slow start in games. We've known this team has one of the most dangerous offenses in baseball for a while now, but that's not why Milwaukee is in the position they're in.

It's been the pitching, both starting and relief, that has been vital in the turnaround. Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum are the only original members of the starting five remaining, as Zack Greinke (traded), Randy Wolf (released) and Chris Narveson (injured) have been replaced by Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers and Wily Peralta. This unit has been solid from top to bottom.

The bullpen has perhaps put together the most shocking turnaround in franchise history, as a group that was the culprit for the Brewers' woes has all of a sudden rediscovered its 2011 form.

The call-ups of Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler have provided stability. Middle relief men Kameron Loe and Jose Veras have helped bridge the gap between the starting pitcher and closer. At the back end, it's just like old times, with K-Rod and John Axford reprising their eighth- and ninth-inning roles respectively.

With the Brewers back in contention, Ryan Braun is a legitimate MVP candidate. Placing Rickie Weeks in the two hole has rejuvenated his season, and Aramis Ramirez protects Braun in the lineup almost as well as the departed Prince Fielder.

One of the biggest keys to this astonishing run is manager Ron Roenicke keeping his clubhouse loose and allowing it to have fun. If the Brewers start to play like they are in a pennant race, they might tighten up and find themselves pressing on the diamond. With all the young faces on this club, that's the last thing Milwaukee needs.

The MLB playoffs were an afterthought when the Brewers dealt Zack Greinke on July 27. Now, they're a distinct possibility.

Isn't this wild?