Jimmy Nelson blew past his opponents for the second time in as many starts, and the hitters backed him up this go-round, giving the Brewers a 3-2 win over the Astros in the rubber game.
Worst Play: Normally, we start with the best play, but this recap will go with the chronological order. Following Nelson’s six strong innings, Tyler Thornburg retired the three batters he faced in the seventh (albeit with a wild pitch), and Michael Blazek entered in the eighth. After striking out Carlos Gomez to begin the frame, Blazek issued a five-pitch walk to Luis Valbuena, whom Jake Marisnick then ran for. He seemed to have gotten out of trouble, though, when 2014 AL batting champ and All-Time King of Grit Jose Altuve tapped a comebacker off a 1-2 slider right to Blazek.
Even against a fast hitter, soft grounders back to the mound usually turn into at least one and perhaps two outs. Neither of those happened on Sunday. Blazek grabbed the ball and promptly flung it into the outfield, allowing Valbuena to advance to third and Altuve to arrive safely at second. The error (-.207) dropped the Brewers’ chances of winning from 74.1 to 53.4 percent — they went from a relatively sure thing to a coin flip.
In a postgame press conference, Craig Counsell said that the speed of the runner probably didn’t cause the miscue, but rather that Blazek “got a little off-balance and probably didn’t have a great grip.” For the pitcher who tied for the team lead in 2015 with three Defensive Runs Saved, this slip-up certainly departed from the norm. It would take a clutch performance for the Brewers to escape with the lead.
Best Play: So Blazek did exactly that. When George Springer stepped in against him, Blazek walloped him with three straight sliders. Springer swung through the first, laid off the second, and tapped the third into center field on a fly ball. Keon Broxton reeled it in and gunned the ball to the plate, keeping Valbuena from scoring. The flyout (+.185) brought the Brewers’ chances of winning back up to 71.9 percent. One Carlos Correa groundout later, Blazek had finagled his way out of the inning. He got the hold, and after Jeremy Jeffress retired the side in order in the ninth, the Brewers got the W.
Hopefully, Blazek can figure out what’s ailed him so far and recapture the magic he possessed in 2015. If he continues to walk more batters than he strikes out — as he has to this point in 2016 — he’ll start allowing more runs, and fast. While the Brewers have a pretty deep bullpen, they could certainly use Blazek’s contributions.
Trend(s) to Watch: This game gave us two big takeaways, each of them a continuation of something else we’d seen previously. First and foremost, Nelson excelled. After holding the Giants to two runs over 7.1 innings in his first start of the year, he scattered three hits over six innings against the Astros. This game, though, had something its predecessor lacked — strikeouts, and a lot of them.
Nelson had nine strikeouts in only two of his 32 starts last season, and he notched just three in his debut this season. With this explosion on his record, though, he currently has a 2016 fan rate of 24.0 percent. We should expect some regression from that — even PECOTA’s 90th-percentile projection gives him a 7.7 K/9 — but Nelson does have strong stuff, as evidenced by his 23.0 percent punchout rate in the minor leagues. If he keeps this up, he’ll take a step forward for the second straight year.
The second trend comes from the other side of the ball. On offense this year, the Brewers haven’t performed as well as we’d like, with a mediocre 3.5 runs per game. With that said, they’ve managed to draw a lot of walks, as some sagely predicted in the offseason. Entering Sunday’s action, Milwaukee ranked sixth in the majors with a 10.7 percent walk rate, and the club added to that against Houston.
Dallas Keuchel won the AL Cy Young in 2015, in large part because of his superb 5.6 percent walk rate. Disregarding that, the Brewers roughed him up for six bases on balls over 5.2 innings. A mere 59 of Keuchel’s 110 pitches — 53.6 percent, nearly ten percentage points below his mark from last year — went for strikes. Altogether, Brewers hitters saw a strike for 54.0 percent of their pitches, netting them seven free passes in total. Ryan Braun earned two, and Domingo Santana, Chris Carter, Martin Maldonado, Yadiel Rivera, and Colin Walsh each tallied one of their own.
A lot of crazy things can happen in six games. As much as we’d like for Scooter Gennett to continue tearing the cover off the ball, I can confidently say he’ll cool off pretty soon. Likewise, Milwaukee’s walk rate will fall in time, as Jonathan Villar and his colleagues revert to their prior aggression. But a somewhat patient approach could remain — PECOTA didn’t predict an 8.0 percent walk rate for no reason. If the Brewers can keep working counts and taking free passes, they’ll reward Nelson and Co. for their efforts on the hill.
Up Next: Today, the Brew Crew will begin an eight-game road trip, as they take on the hated Cardinals in a Busch Stadium matinee. Taylor Jungmann squares off versus Michael Wacha at 3:05 CST. The series continues on Wednesday night when Chase Anderson faces Mike Leake, and on Thursday afternoon when Wily Peralta starts against Jaime Garcia. At 3-3 after six contests, the Brewers can’t feel too unhappy with how the first week of 2016 went. Let’s hope that the second week brings them just as much success.