David Schoenfield, ESPN Senior Writer 85d

Real or not? Brewers blow golden opportunity to catch Rockies

The Rockies had already lost, shut out 4-0 in an afternoon game in San Francisco. With a win, the Brewers would tie the Rockies for the second wild card.

Milwaukee's starter in this crucial game with 12 days left in the season: Aaron Wilkerson.

Who?

Baseball in September can be a strange thing as even playoff contenders scramble to fill holes on pitching staffs worn down by injuries and fatigue. In Milwaukee's cause, the Brewers needed somebody to start for Jimmy Nelson, their best pitcher who went down for the season -- and part of 2018 -- when he partially tore a labrum diving back into first base after a base hit on Sept. 8.

Wilkerson had gone undrafted out of Cumberland University, played independent ball in 2013 and part of 2014, then signed with the Red Sox and was traded to the Brewers last summer in the Aaron Hill deal. He spent the season at Double-A with good numbers (3.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 143 K's in 142⅓ IP), made a start for Colorado Springs in the Pacific Coast League playoffs and tossed seven no-hit innings. Still, he's not even included in MLB.com's top 30 Brewers prospects, a nod to his age (he's 28) and lack of pedigree.

But here he was, making his first major league start.

"We'll just see how far he can get," manager Craig Counsell had said before the game. "Obviously, it's his first big league start and it's a big spot, but we feel like he's been pitching in a way that we think he can have success out there."

Wilkerson would last just 2⅓ innings on Wednesday, giving up three runs in the third, but it was All-Star closer Corey Knebel who would fail in the end. The Brewers had taken a 4-3 lead over the Pirates in the seventh. In the eighth, Andrew McCutchen doubled off Anthony Swarzak and Counsell brought in Knebel for a four-out save. David Freese hit a little dribbler down the third-base line, a do-or-die play for Knebel. He had a chance with a perfect throw, but he also could have just eaten the ball and gone after the next batter. Instead, his throw sailed wide and McCutchen scored the tying run. Then in the ninth, Adam Frazier won it with a two-out homer off a 98 mph heater:

So, tough one for the Brewers. Now comes their biggest test of the season: A four-game series at home against the Cubs. Hey, sweep them again and the Brewers move into first place. (The Cubs lead the National League Central by 3½ games.) You wonder who's going to available in the Milwaukee bullpen in that first game, however. Knebel has pitched three days in a row. Swarzak has pitched three days in a row. Josh Hader has pitched twice in three days and thrown 42 pitches.

Counsell and pitching coach Derek Johnson have done a terrific job with the Brewers' staff. They've had to churn through 13 different starting pitchers. They're still in it. They have 10 games left in 11 days, and they can still catch the Cubs. Who's available? Everyone.

We love our round numbers in baseball. Chris Sale needed 13 strikeouts to get to 300, and he got 13 in a 9-0 victory over the Orioles:

Sale became the first American League pitcher to get 300 K's since Pedro Martinez in 1999 -- and joined Pedro as the only Red Sox hurler to get there. He's the seventh lefty in AL history to do so, joining Rube Waddell (look him up!) and Sam McDowell ("Sudden Sam" -- one of the best nicknames ever), who each did it twice, plus Randy Johnson, Vida Blue and Mickey Lolich. Five NL lefties have done it: Clayton Kershaw, Johnson (four times), Sandy Koufax (three times), Steve Carlton and Lady Baldwin back in 1886. (More on Sale's 300 strikeouts from ESPN Stats & Information here.)

Anyway, awesome milestone, but the important number from this game was that zero runs allowed. The Yankees had won earlier, so the Red Sox kept the margin in the AL East at three games. Since Sept. 5, the Yankees have gone 11-3 -- but the Red Sox have gone 11-3. Boston's magic number to clinch the division drops to eight, but they clinched a playoff berth with the Angels' loss to the Indians on the West Coast.

Wild-card winner of the night. Well, we just told you the Rockies and Brewers lost. But the Cardinals won! They're 2½ back of the Rockies. My man Tommy Pham had three hits, while Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Paul DeJong all homered in a 9-2 victory over the Reds. The Cardinals get the Reds again on Thursday, with a decisive advantage in the pitching matchup -- Carlos Martinez versus Homer Bailey. Does it feel like the final mile of a marathon and the Cardinals might still have their legs for that final sprint?

Wild-card loser of the night. The Rockies have held a playoff position since April 14, and they're safe for at least another couple of days. Despite these two road losses to the Giants, the Rockies could still finish with the best road record in franchise history. They're 39-38, and they have finished above .500 on the road just once, going 41-40 in 2009, which was the year of their last playoff appearance. Their home winning percentage, however, is just 10th best in franchise history.

The Rockies have hit reasonably well on the road (for them) with a .706 OPS, the highest since 2009. But they haven't hit as well at home as they have in some years. Their home/road OPS differential:

If the Rockies end up missing the postseason, most will blame the pitching staff. And yes, the young starters and the bullpen haven't been as good in the second half. But another reason to think about: They haven't scored enough runs at home.

If you can mention Bye Bye Balboni, you have to do it. One of the most cherished records in team sports was finally broken on Wednesday. Steve Balboni's Royals record of 36 home runs had stood since 1985, but Mike Moustakas finally broke it with this homer:

Moustakas had been in a huge home run slump. He hit his 35th way back on Aug. 15. Since then, he had homered just once in 28 games and 91 at-bats. Some Royals fans wondered if Balboni had placed a curse on Moustakas. Apparently not the case. Remember a couple of years ago when Moustakas tried to focus more on hitting the ball to the opposite field? He went back to pull-heavy Moustakas this season. He has hit 15 more home runs than his previous career high.

He's also the owner of my favorite oddballs stats of the season. Moustakas has struck out looking once all season -- on a pitch low and away off the plate. Baltimore's Chris Davis has fanned looking 72 times. That seems incredible, but Davis did it 79 times last season. Aaron Judge and Wil Myers are tied for second at 60.

Anyway, there were five team home run records older than Balboni's:

Hank Greenberg, Tigers -- 1938 (58)

Ralph Kiner, Pirates -- 1949 (54)

Roger Maris, Yankees -- 1961 (61)

Harmon Killebrew, Twins -- 1964, 1969 (49)

George Foster, Reds -- 1977 (52)

Big boys go yard. Giancarlo Stanton hit No. 56 and Aaron Judge hit No. 45. Judge also joined an exclusive club with Ted Williams and Al Rosen as rookies to reach 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored. There is some dispute over whether Rosen should be a considered a rookie: He wasn't at the time (1950), but he would be under today's standards, as he had just 65 plate appearances before that season.

Oh, J.D. Martinez hit another one as well:

That's 41 in 111 games for Martinez. That's a pace of 59 homers over 160 games, but he missed time with an injury. His slugging percentage with Arizona is over .700 and it's .672 overall -- and 38 points higher than Stanton's. Incredible.

Disaster strikes Puerto Rico. There have been 28 major leaguers to play in 2017 who born in Puerto Rico, including Francisco Lindor, Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Correa and Jose Berrios. There are other players of Puerto Rican descent born in the States. Hurricane Maria -- the first Category 4 hurricane to make a direct hit on the island since 1928 -- has devastated the country. The entire island is without power. It could take months to repair the aging power grid, depending on the damage discovered, the governor said.

You can check the Twitter handles as many players sent out their thoughts. It couldn't have been easy to play as they waited for news. As ESPN's Marly Rivera reported, "I have talked or texted with a lot of the Puerto Rican players in MLB, and a lot of them have not heard from their families regarding the impact of Hurricane Maria." Without power, communication is limited.

As the Houston area sets out on the long recovery from Hurricane Harvey and Florida from Hurricane Irma, don't forget Puerto Rico, if you can afford a financial donation. Remember, these are our fellow U.S. citizens.

Then there was the earthquake in Mexico City that already has left more than 200 dead, as workers continue to dig through the rubble. These are our neighbors to the south. There are 15 major leaguers this season who were born in Mexico -- interestingly, 14 of them pitchers -- and, of course, many others of Mexican descent.

So, as we enjoy these final days of this little diversion called baseball, I think of those not as fortunate.

I think of a quote from Carl Sagan: "This is where we live, on a blue dot. ... On that blue dot, that's where everyone you know, and everyone you ever heard of, and every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives -- it's a very small stage in a great cosmic arena. I think this perspective underscores our responsibility to preserve and cherish that blue dot, the only home we have."

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