Best Play: Making his second start of the season for the Brewers, Matt Garza ran into some trouble right off the bat. Chase Utley led off the game with a single, then Kyle Seager clubbed a double to center field, giving the Dodgers runners two runners in scoring position with no one out. Garza managed to escape, though — after fanning Justin Turner on three pitches, he forced Adrian Gonzalez to loft a fly ball to shallow left field. Ryan Braun charged in to grab it and throw out an aggressive Utley at the plate.
With Braun’s assist (+.147) aiding his cause — by raising the Brewers’ win probability from 47.0 to 61.6 percent — Garza seemed to settle down. The Brewers had scored just minutes before, on a Scooter Gennett solo shot, and Garza would make the 1-0 advantage stand up. He faced the minimum three batters in the second, fourth, and sixth innings, and his defense continued to lend him a hand: Two innings after Braun did his thing, Ramon Flores gunned down a runner of his own. All told, the Brewers’ odds of victory wouldn’t dip below 50 percent for the remainder of Garza’s time.
This offseason, I wrote about the Brewers’ general inability to collect outfield assists. This hasn’t changed in 2016, as even with Sunday’s plays, the club’s outfielders have recorded just 13 assists, placing them 15st in the majors. Amazingly, eight of those have come from Braun, who has never reached double digits in that regard. If he can retain his unprecedented arm strength — and if Flores can continue to make sterling throws like the one he did yesterday — the Brewers might not need the budding cannons of Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips.
Worst Play: Sadly, the outfielders’ best efforts couldn’t negate a bullpen meltdown. Enrique Hernandez homered off Will Smith in the eighth to tie the game at 1-1, and Tyler Thornburg gave it up in the following frame. Two singles and a walk, along with a flyout and strikeout, gave Yasmani Grandal a bases-loaded chance to knock in the winning run. On a full count, he did just that, letting a four-seamer fall outside the zone for the game-winning base on balls.
Grandal’s walk (-.349) eliminated any hope Milwaukee had of coming away with the win — since, again, it gave Los Angeles the walkoff. After Thornburg allowed his third and penultimate baserunner, the Brewers still stood a 34.9 percent chance of winning. Each of those percentage points ticked away with each pitch Grandal laid off, until the Dodgers had claimed the victory.
Thornburg’s loss, while painful, was most likely a fluke. Even with the two free passes he issued, his walk rate for the season remains respectable at 7.9 percent. Smith’s blown save, though, might indicate an actual problem. This season, Smith’s velocity has yet to impress; on Sunday, he topped out at 91.9 mph on his fastball. He’s begun to move away from his killer slider as well (perhaps fearing another injury). His whiffs and strikeouts are consequently down, making him an uncertain presence in the late innings.
Trend to Watch: [peeking out from under rock] Did…did that actually happen? Did Matt Garza truly pitch six shutout innings against a major-league team? Granted, the Dodgers rank only 16th in the majors in TAv, and Garza got the two assists plus this play, but still — six shutout innings, from a guy whose DRA imploded to 6.17 last season, is pretty damn impressive.
While Garza clearly isn’t this good, he might have remedied some of the problems that plagued him in 2015. He’s started to elevate his pitches again, especially his four-seamer. That seems to have helped reduce solid contact; according to FanGraphs, his hard-hit rate has declined from 33.0 to 23.5 percent. He’s also fallen behind 3-0 less often than last year, which had become one of his weaknesses. That, along with a higher rate of in-play strikes, has made his plate appearances shorter and his walk rate smaller.
Garza doesn’t yet have the velocity he possessed last year, or the whiffs. And it would also help if he returned to the pitch mix he relied upon before 2015. Regardless, a pair of respectable outings to kick off the season won’t dissatisfy anyone. Maybe Garza can keep this going, and the Brewers won’t have as much difficulty swallowing the rest of his contract.
Up Next: The Brewers have the day off today, which will hopefully help the bullpen recharge. Tomorrow, they conclude their West Coast road trip with two games in Oakland. Jimmy Nelson and Sonny Gray will face off at 9:05 CST in a battle of struggling, young de facto aces; then on Wednesday, Junior Guerra and Daniel Mengden will take the mound in an afternoon bout.