MILWAUKEE — Freddy Peralta’s voice wavered as he talked about the fastball which produced, if not the Brewers’ most crushing defeat this season, one that came mighty close.
“It was a really important game for us,” said the Brewers right-hander, a starter on most nights but a high-leverage reliever in Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the Marlins at American Family Field.
“Crazy,” he said softly.
With the Brewers four outs shy from pushing into postseason position for the first time since the early days of August, Peralta surrendered a go-ahead grand slam to old friend Avisaíl García on a two-strike, two-out pitch that turned a 2-0 lead into a loss that left Milwaukee one-half game behind free-falling Philadelphia in the chase for the National League’s final Wild Card berth.
The Brewers knew going into the night that it was a particularly important game after the Cubs finished a sweep of the Phillies at Wrigley Field. It was the Phillies’ 10th loss in 13 games, offering the Brewers a chance to move ahead — which is critical considering that Philadelphia, by virtue of winning four of the six head-to-head matchups, has the tiebreaker over Milwaukee should the teams finish the regular season with identical records.
“We still have an opportunity in front of us,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We have to come out and play a good game [Friday].”
The Brewers have six games remaining, starting with a matchup of reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes versus this year’s NL Cy Young Award frontrunner, Marlins righty Sandy Alcantara. The Phillies have seven games left on their schedule, starting with a doubleheader on Friday against the Nationals in Washington, where the remnants of Hurricane Ian could prove a problem over the course of the weekend.
The Brewers will be watching. On Thursday afternoon, the Phillies-Cubs game was on several clubhouse televisions.
“It wasn’t so much talked about, but guys knew the scenario,” said Eric Lauer, who gave the Brewers five scoreless, nearly spotless innings in his second start off the injured list. “The guys know where we’re at. We know every game counts and every game is important. We’re just trying to go out and win every game, regardless of what happens with other teams.”
With that in mind, Counsell has been forecasting this week that he would get increasingly creative with a pitching staff that has been stretched thin by injuries. For seven-plus innings, everything went to plan, starting with five clean innings from Lauer and a 2-0 lead.
His 71 pitches were only five more than Lauer threw six days earlier against the Reds in his first start coming off two weeks on the injured list with an elbow issue, but the Brewers’ dugout decision-makers deemed that enough — over Lauer’s pleas to continue — because he’d been up and down five times. Peter Strzelecki navigated a scoreless sixth before Peralta took over and dealt a nine-pitch, 1-2-3 seventh.
“Freddy was fresh,” said Counsell, explaining the choice of Peralta over a typical set-up man. “He’s a really good pitcher.”
Is that the sort of spot Counsell was looking to deploy Peralta?
“Yeah. It’s a tough spot, for sure, but certainly I’ll give Freddy the ball any time,” Counsell said. “I don’t care what the situation is, I’ll give Freddy the ball.”
Said Peralta: “I was ready. They let me know the situation I was going to pitch if the team needed me. It just didn’t work today. It happens, man. Nothing I can do about it right now.”
Peralta ran into trouble in the eighth when he loaded the bases on two singles and a two-out walk to set the stage for García, who hit 29 home runs for the Brewers last season before leaving via free agency and signing a four-year deal with Miami. Catcher Victor Caratini placed his glove at the very top outside corner of the strike zone. Peralta threw a fastball away, but not far enough up.
Brewers center fielder Tyrone Taylor briefly appeared to have a read on the ball, but it sailed past his leaping attempt for a go-ahead grand slam.
“I was so late on the fastball the whole game,” García said. “I was sitting fastball, and thank God I got it.”
García’s first career grand slam was a crushing blow for his former team, which effectively needs to gain a game and a half on the Phillies with less than a week to go.
“These kinds of games, they’re hard to win for the team [like the Brewers] that’s trying to get back in things because no matter who you’re playing, like, you’re supposed to beat us, right?” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “I knew if we could just hang in there and [get] one big hit, a little break, and you know you can break through.”