The Milwaukee Brewers saw a narrow lead slip away Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals when starting pitcher Matt Garza took himself out of the game. Now they'll hope Garza's nagging injury won't do the same to a tight division race.
Garza (7-7, 3.58 ERA, 145.2 IP) was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a left oblique strain Wednesday, leaving the NL Central-leading Brewers with a rotation dilemma.
Garza insists that the move is "more precautionary than anything," per Adam McCalvy and Caitlin Swieca of MLB.com, but given the precarious nature of the injury—timetables for return range from a few starts to multiple months—manager Ron Roenicke will have to make some tough decisions. Reliever Rob Wooten was called up to replace Garza on the roster.
Marco Estrada—who started 2014 in the rotation before being knocked to the bullpen shortly before the All-Star break—seemed the likely candidate to assume Garza's duties, but Roenicke called on him to pitch three innings Wednesday against San Francisco, potentially jeopardizing his chances to start in the open slot Saturday.
Instead, the Brewers will most likely turn to Mike Fiers. The right-hander has spent most of the last two seasons in the minors, but fans will hope to see him return to his rookie form in 2012, when he posted a 3.74 ERA in 23 games. Both of these players present a risk, though giving Fiers another shot could reap major dividends if he's truly back.
There's no doubt that an extended Garza absence would seriously hamper Milwaukee's playoff push, considering his recent dominant form and veteran presence. But even with a healthy rotation, St. Louis hasn't been doing its division rivals any favors.
The Cardinals—only a game behind the Brewers after Wednesday's action—have been coming on strong recently and added veteran starters John Lackey and Justin Masterson at the trade deadline. St. Louis was the consensus favorite to win the division before Milwaukee's hot start to the season and is now proving why.
Though catcher Yadier Molina's torn thumb ligament could keep him out until September, the Cardinals have enough quality to remain a top World Series contender. St. Louis' rotation—anchored by Adam Wainwright's 2.26 ERA—is lethal and more than covers anemic days at the plate for a struggling offense. All five starters are more than capable of delivering day in and day out and there's no reason why the Cardinals won't maintain their steady, effectual pace toward a division title.
The Pirates are hanging on just 1.5 games behind Milwaukee and a half game from a wild-card spot, but a rib injury to 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen has put Pittsburgh's season in doubt.
Though the team has yet to place the center fielder on the disabled list, it's hard to imagine him playing anywhere near 100 percent for the playoff push. His .311 average, 17 home runs and 67 RBI will be near impossible to replace, and that's without even mentioning his stellar defense. The Brewers won't be worried about Pittsburgh unless their MVP makes a miraculous recovery.
Milwaukee, meanwhile, will just keep hitting away.
Though the pitching may regress to the middle of the pack while Garza sits, the Brewer offense will continue to produce.
Roenicke's weekly lineup shuffling has done wonders to not only squeeze what's left out of the Lyle Overbay-Mark Reynolds first base platoon, but also plays to the strengths of his stars, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy. And the rest of the batting order—Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Khris Davis just to name a few—features players who are a threat every time they step into the box.
The Brewers are not exactly a juggernaut—in fact, it's often surprising to see them in first place. But this team is balanced, capable and has just enough depth that it can weather the loss of Garza.
At least for a few weeks.