Braves-Cards? Not so fast. It might be Braves-Brewers

The great thing about working for a daily newspaper is that, as esteemed AJC colleague Earnest Reese said at his retirement ceremony, “We get to create the world every day.” That’s true. No day in our business is exactly like the one before it. Every day we write something new. Sometimes the world moves so fast as to render what was written yesterday almost null and void.

I'm speaking firsthand. Wednesday's offering mostly addressed the Cardinals, who figure to serve as the Braves' NLDS opponent. At the time of writing, FanGraphs gave St. Louis a 93 percent chance of winning the National League Central. Overnight, that number slipped to 81.4 percent. It fell again Thursday; it's down to 71.3 percent. The Brewers, see, have forgotten how to lose.

They’ve won 18 of 20. On Sept. 5, they were 7-1/2 games behind the Cardinals in their division and five games back of the Cubs for the second wild card. On Wednesday night, the Cubs were eliminated and the Brewers clinched no worse than a wild card. And there’s a real chance they can do better than a wild card. After winning in Cincinnati on Thursday afternoon, they’re within a skinny game of St. Louis.

The Cardinals finish at home against the chastened Cubs, whom the Redbirds just swept at Wrigley Field. The Brewers finish with a weekend set in Denver against the last-place Rockies. Until losing twice in Arizona, St. Louis had been hot, too. Now they’re doing as the Cubs just did, looking over their shoulder at their pursuers and wondering, as Butch said to Sundance, who ARE those guys?

Until Sept. 10, we knew Milwaukee because of Christian Yelich, last year’s MVP who was in the running to be this year’s MVP. Any discussion as to who’s the second-best player in baseball — Mike Trout still stands alone — now begins with Yelich. On Sept. 10, he fouled a ball down. The ball shattered his kneecap. He was done for the year, and so, you figured, was his team. But no.

The Brewers are 12-2 without Yelich. If the Braves were to go 12-2 without Freddie Freeman, it would be remarkable — but not this remarkable. The Braves would still have Ronald Acuna and Josh Donaldson. Going by WAR (wins above replacement), Milwaukee’s second-best position player would be the fifth-best position player among Braves. (The second-best Brewer is third baseman Mike Moustakas, king of the one-year contract.)

And yet: Minus Yelich, working with as unassuming a roster as any playoff team ever, the Brewers have guaranteed themselves an October. Still at issue is whether they can play their way into a division title, which would mean skipping the dreaded play-in game and sailing into a best-of-five against the Braves. Not to be crass, but the thought of the Brewers as a Round 1 opponent would make the Braves feel as they’ve hit the Powerball. On paper, the Cardinals aren’t as good as the Braves, and the Cardinals are way more talented than Milwaukee.

Yeah, strange things happen in the playoffs, and Milwaukee is on such a run that anything seems possible. But the Brewers themselves have fallen into a run of luck. Since Yelich was lost, they’ve played 15 games. Three were against an opponent above .500. It’s as if, having doomed the Brew Crew to a month without its best player, the baseball gods said, “We’ll make it up to you, schedule-wise.”

If you’re the Braves, you’re pulling for a first-place tie come Sunday. That would pair the Cardinals and Brewers in a one-game playoff Monday. The loser would face the Nationals in the wild-card game, with the winner meeting the Braves in the best-of-five NLDS with its best starter presumably shelved until Game 3. (Yeah, the same thing happened last year when the Dodgers and Rockies tied for first in the West, but the Dodgers were so deep it mattered not.)

The thought, such as it was, behind yesterday’s missive still holds: The Cardinals are better than you think. They’re ahead of Milwaukee entering the final weekend, but they’ll have work to do to avoid a game on Monday. Technically, the Braves will spend their weekend playing the Mets. Their focus, however, will be on the Citi Field scoreboard, as they watch and wonder if the Brewers can pull this off.