Because baseball, like life, is pain, emergent Brewers ace Jimmy Nelson is now out for the season after suffering a torn labrum sliding back into first base after hitting a long single off the wall in Friday night’s win over the Cubs. Watching it in real time, I was afraid he was going to pull a hip flexor or an oblique cutting short his hard round of first. Instead, it was the slide back where he jammed the shoulder and suffered the injury that will end his season.
It’s a crushing blow for the Brewers. Not only has Nelson clearly been the club’s best pitcher, whether by the eye test or by any number of metrics, it seemed like Nelson had also become the emotional leader in the starting rotation. Nelson brought so much raw energy to the mound, and he was at his best over the last month or so when the club needed him most. His season ends on a three-game winning streak with 24 strikeouts over 18.7 innings and just two runs allowed against the Dodgers, Nationals and Cubs. That’s one hell of a run.
Nelson was only projected, by both ZiPS and PECOTA’s rest-of-season projections, to add about a half a win for the Brewers down the stretch. Considering he only had about four starts left, I think it’s fair to say that Nelson’s loss is a bigger deal symbolically than anything else. It’s not just that the Brewers are going to lose his production. They’re also going to lose that stopper in the rotation, and particularly with the way the offense has scuffled since the break, the knowledge that the cold bats might not matter when Nelson’s turn through the rotation comes is critical.
But while it’s hard to imagine the Brewers making any sort of deep run through October without Nelson, we shouldn’t see this injury as the end of Milwaukee’s playoff chances. The Brewers are supposedly looking into minor league options to fill the rotation for the rest of the season. Whoever fills in won’t have to worry about going deep into games thanks to the extended bullpen granted by the expanded September roster.
The races right now are close enough: following this weekend’s fantastic sweep in Chicago, the Brewers are just two games behind the Cubs for the division. Even if the Cubs catch fire down the stretch, Milwaukee now only trails Colorado by three games for the Wild Card spot as well. The season can easily swing on one pitch, and the fact that Nelson has made his last hurts Milwaukee’s chances significantly. But the Brewers will still be the same team that has been in contention all year long on the other four days, and all it takes is one or two big step-up performances to make up for what will be lost from Nelson.
It’s going to be tough. But it has been tough all year. The Brewers have defied odds since April by staying in this race. Jimmy Nelson’s part in that can’t be overstated, but this team wasn’t going anywhere if they couldn’t win without him on the mound down the stretch. Now is the time for the rest of this squad to step up. As the team showed with its blowout win Saturday and their completion of the sweep Sunday, they still have the competitive fire necessary to keep things interesting. Dedicate this stretch run to Nelson and maybe, just maybe, they can come together and make what seemed impossible at the beginning of the season a reality.
Photo Credit: Jim Young, USAToday Sports Images