Cole Hamels has been with the Cubs a month and already is an expert on the Brewers-Cubs rivalry.
Monday's Labor Day tilt in Milwaukee featured a stadium half full of Cubs fans, and Hamels took a dig at Brewers fans after the game. "When you have the majority of Cubs fans in the stands, I don't know if that's a rivalry," Hamels said. "They aren't going to like me for the comment, but look at the ticket sales. When they start to get a little closer and their fans sell out, then I think that's kind of the understanding [of a rivalry]. But Cubs fans travel well."
It should be noted the Brewers won the game 4-3, with runs in the eighth and ninth innings, so Hamels was probably a little grumpy when he met with reporters. The Brewers won when Kris Bryant tried to turn a double play with the bases loaded on Christian Yelich's grounder rather than throw home:
Hamels is right that Cubs games in Milwaukee feature a high percentage of Cubs fans, a result of the proximity of the two cities. Cubs fans who can't get tickets for Wrigley because the ballpark is often half full of tourists instead head 90 miles north to Miller Park.
He's wrong about something else, however. The Brewers have great fans -- easily the most underrated fan base in the game. The Brewers are averaging more than 34,000 fans per game and will top 30,000 for the 11th time in 12 seasons, even though Milwaukee is the smallest metro market in the majors. The population of the entire state of Wisconsin is barely half that of the Chicago metropolitan area, so Cubs fans travel well in large part because there are simply more of them.
Anyway, Hamels' comments will add a little spice to what could be a dramatic stretch run in the NL Central. Anthony Rizzo had put the Cubs ahead with a two-run homer off Josh Hader in the top of the eighth -- the first home run Hader allowed to a lefty this season -- but the Brewers tied it when Carl Edwards Jr. walked Mike Moustakas with the bases loaded. The winning rally came courtesy of a walk (to light-hitting catcher Erik Kratz) and two hit batters by Steve Cishek. Ouch. The Cubs gave this one away.
The Brewers' win means they trail the Cubs by just four games. It's imperative they at least split the final two games of the series. Sweeping the Cubs would put their deficit at just two games and the teams have a return engagement next week at Wrigley. The standings look eerily similar to last year's, when the Cubs had a 3½-game lead over the Brewers on Labor Day. Milwaukee would slice that down to two games before the Cubs pulled away the final week.
That's how you create a rivalry -- playoff races, year after year. This is the second one in a row between the Brewers and Cubs and, no matter what Cole Hamels says, it's turning into one of the best rivalries in the game.
September is not August: Turning our attention to the third team in the NL Central race, the Cardinals had one of the best months in franchise history in August, going 22-6 while demolishing their opponents with a plus-66 run differential, but they've dropped their first three games of September after losing 4-3 to the Nationals in 10 innings. The Cards had a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, but Bryce Harper didn't miss a fastball from Bud Norris:
Free baseball brought to you by Bryce Harper. pic.twitter.com/Dkrkh9HhkX— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) September 3, 2018
Harper then won it with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 10th. That was interesting because Cardinals manager Mike Shildt elected to pitch to Harper with runners at first and third and one out (following a double from Mark Reynolds and Adam Eaton's bunt single). Some managers would have intentionally walked Harper and faced Anthony Rendon with a force play at home, but I think pitching to Harper was the right decision. You had a lefty in there, Chasen Shreve (Harper's former teammate at the College of Southern Nevada), and Harper strikes out more than Rendon.
Norris blew up for the second straight game after giving up two home runs and losing on Sunday. There could be a closer controversy brewing in St. Louis:
Mike Shildt was noncommittal about Bud Norris remaining the closer: "I understand you have to play hot hands and every game has a sense of urgency to it, but I'm also not just a guy who's going to ignore a body of work and a guy's capabilities either."— Mark Saxon (@markasaxon) September 3, 2018
The problem here is what exactly is Norris' "body of work" that the manager is referring to? This isn't Kenley Jansen. This is a journeyman right-hander who took over as Cardinals closer only after others failed to do the job. He has a 3.92 ERA over the past two seasons, so even the good Bud Norris hasn't been anything special. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has plunged from 8.33 in the first half to 1.40 in the second half. Sounds like a guy who peaked before the All-Star Game.
Meanwhile, Carlos Martinez has been pitching out of the bullpen, although he hasn't been extended yet in that role with a high of 21 pitches in six appearances. He pitched the seventh inning on Monday so he wasn't available to close, but right now I'd line up him and Jordan Hicks as my top two relief options, and John Brebbia is probably a better option than Norris as well. Everything came up roses for Shildt in August, but now he faces the first big decision of his managing career.
Cy Young update: Jacob deGrom didn't even have his best stuff -- at least according to Mets announcer Ron Darling -- but he still held the Dodgers to two hits and one run over six innings (a Justin Turner home run in the first). While the Mets won 4-2, deGrom got a no-decision as the Mets scored three in the ninth.
It feels like deGrom has taken the lead in the Cy Young race. Max Scherzer also pitched on Monday and gave up three runs and has allowed eight runs over his past three starts -- fine pitching, but in this race that qualifies as mediocre results. Aaron Nola gave up three home runs on Sunday. DeGrom lowered his ERA to 1.68 and has now allowed three runs or fewer in 25 consecutive starts, tying an MLB mark set by King Cole in 1910 (more on him in a minute). As for deGrom's bad luck, he has had nine starts of at least six innings in which he has allowed one run or less and didn't get the win. That's the most ever in a season (courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau research).
DeGrom's one "bad" outing? In his third start of the season, he gave up four runs to the Marlins in six innings -- and they all came in one inning. Justin Bour capped the rally with a two-run homer, but the other three hits in the inning were two infield hits to third base and a ground ball to right field. So even when deGrom was bad, he was really just unlucky.
So who was King Cole? He was a rookie with the Cubs in 1910 (he pitched one game in 1909) and went 20-4 with a league-leading 1.80 ERA. Cole, who threw a fastball and curveball, went 18-7 the next season, but apparently came down with some problems in 1912 and spent 1913 with Columbus in the minor leagues, where he threw 341 innings. He returned to pitch two seasons for the Yankees, but contracted tuberculosis after the 1915 season and died on Jan. 6, 1916. His claim to fame: He was apparently the player Ring Lardner modeled for his "Alibi Ike" series of stories.
Twins lose, won't recall Buxton: The Astros beat the Twins 4-1 even though they had only four hits. One of those was Alex Bregman's 28th home run, which led to one of the best home run celebrations of the year as the Astros went curling in the dugout:
A word about the Twins. In my book, they're right up there with the Nationals for most disappointing season. They had a playoff berth laid out on a platter before the season given the state of the AL Central and the terrible tanking teams in Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit. They made some reasonable moves in the offseason to add more depth. It just didn't work out -- injuries were a factor, but mostly the Twins just haven't been that good.
A key factor behind their 63-74 record is that Miguel Sano is hitting .202/.282/.405 and Byron Buxton hit .156 in 28 games. You can apparently put Buxton's line in ink as the Twins say they aren't going to recall him from Triple-A. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic had a good look at the Twins' decision not to recall Buxton.
As you can guess, it has to do with service time -- although the Twins aren't saying that on the record. Buxton is 13 days short of three full seasons of major league service time, so by not calling up him for those 13 days, the Twins will control Buxton through 2022 instead of 2021.
From a cold-hearted baseball standpoint, what the Twins are doing makes sense. You can play Buxton in meaningless September games or you can play him in 2022. The Twins also said that Buxton isn't completely healthy.
"I think he's done a great job recently of fighting through his wrist injury. The reality is it's still lingering," general manager Thad Levine told Rosenthal. "We would ideally try to put him in the position such that in 2019 he's unencumbered from a health standpoint.
"Two, there is a performance standpoint factor that is affecting this decision and, three, quite frankly it's just a playing-time situation. As we look to the major league team right now as it's constituted, we obviously view Byron Buxton as a starting outfielder. Those at-bats were not necessarily prevalent at this juncture, so we are not going to recall him."
Wow, that's quite the rationale. He's playing in Triple-A, but isn't healthy enough to play in the majors. And given the limited playing time he has had in the majors this season, wouldn't a month of big league at-bats be useful?
Instead, the Twins are playing hardball. It has been a lost season for Buxton. He came back too soon after he fractured his big toe in April and it feels like he's being punished for trying to play through the pain and then returning to the DL. Certainly, if he wasn't hitting .156/.183/.200, he'd be back in the majors. It's a little easier to justify leaving a .156 hitter in the minors, although that ignores that Buxton had what many believed was a breakout season in 2017, when he won a Gold Glove and produced a 5.2-WAR season.
The bigger picture is that the service-time issue has become a major problem -- at least for players and fans. There's something wrong with a sport that keeps Buxton in the minors, or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez in the minors, or keeps Ronald Acuna Jr. in the minors for even a couple of weeks when he should have been in the majors at the start of the season. The players will fight the service-time rules in negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement, and it could get ugly.
Joey Votto is the best: OK, so Votto never did find his power stroke this year. He did, however, exchange one of his jerseys for a "Votto for President" T-shirt that fan Kyle Olding was wearing:
The only problem: Votto is Canadian. Maybe the shirt should read "Votto for Prime Minister."