I’d like to start with the fair and obvious warning: this is a very small sample size. Then again, it’s a small sample size being compared to a history of other small sample sizes.
After Zack Greinke faltered in Game One of the NLCS (six earned in six valiant innings, with eight hits and two walks allowed), the trio of Takashi Saito, Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford shut down the Redbirds for three innings, allowing one hit and one walk, and striking out four. They threw 15 pitches per inning on average, and incited three groundouts. It was a shutdown performance that provided the Brewers with some comfort and confidence while they continued to tack on several insurance runs. They won 9-6. As if you need me to tell you, the trio will be key if the boys from Milwaukee are to win the World Series this year.
In Game One of the NLDS, Yovani Gallardo pitched eight superb one-run innings (Game Score of 78, struck out nine) before handing the ball over to Axford for a clean ninth in which he recorded one strikeout, 10 strikes out of 14 pitches, and a save.
In Game Two of the NLDS, the Milwaukee bullpen was credited with a win, though the innings weren’t as high leverage as the two aforementioned games. After Greinke surrendered four runs over five innings and exited the game when it was tied 4-4, Arizona’s Daniel Hudson gave up a run before Brad Ziegler blew up, allowing six base runners and four earned runs without recording an out. The bullpen arms for the Brew Crew weren’t particularly sharp—surrendering seven base runners in four innings—but they did strike out six.
The elite arms didn’t pitch in Game Three, as Shaun Marcum‘s seven-run disaster outing left the Brewers in the dust from the very beginning of the game. Kameron Loe wasn’t sharp, surrendering three hits in 1.1 innings, before handing the ball over to Chris Narveson, who faced three batters, striking out each of them. Manny Estrada pitched the eighth to the tune of two strikeouts and one hit.
In Game Four of the NLDS, Narveson blew up in the sixth and seventh innings, skyrocketing the shiny Brewers’ bullpen ERA. He surrendered two homers and three earned runs in 1.1 innings, allowing two hits, one walk, and striking out three. The other 3.2 innings were pitched by Estrada, Loe, and Saito—they (Estrada) struck out three, and they (the combination of the Estrada and Saito) gave up three hits.
In the rubber match of the Division Series, the Brewers went with their dynamic trio of Saito in the seventh (one clean inning with a K), K-Rod in the eighth (a shaky inning in which he escaped unscathed, but gave up two walks and a hit to go along with his two Ks), and Axford in the ninth. There, they ran into trouble. Axford gave up three hits, including a safety squeeze, to start the inning, before striking out Aaron Hill and getting two groundouts. He retired Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Young and Lyle Overbay (struck out looking) to put the Brewers back in the batter’s box, and got credited with the win and blown save.
I looked at the last 10 World Series winners for context.
In 17.1 innings pitched, the Brewers pen has produced a 2.07 ERA, a less-than-stellar 1.33 WHIP, and 23 strikeouts, good for a 12.1 K/9.
The 2008 Phillies were most like the 2011 Brewers, having a dangerous trio at the back end of their bullpen (much like the boys in white and dark blue). The back-end of the 2008 champs’ pen was occupied by J.C. Romero in the seventh (zero earned runs in 7.1 innings), Ryan Madson in the eighth (2.13 ERA, 0.87 WHIP in 12.2 innings), and Brad Lidge in the ninth (one earned run in 9.1 innings, and a 0.96 WHIP to boot). The trio for the Phillies compiled a 9.90 K/9 in the ’08 playoffs.
The Brewers’ Saito, Rodriguez and Axford have struck out 11 in nine innings pitched in the playoffs so far (I’ll save you the math and tell you it’s an 11 K/9). They have a 1.00 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP, and the latter number can be blamed mostly on one shaky inning by Rodriguez where he gave up three base runners.
Here’s a comparison of the regular season numbers of the seventh-through-ninth inning guys on both teams.
Their dominance is on par with the dominance found in the late innings in the Phillies’ 2008 championship run, though their middle relievers, much like the Phillies’ in ’08, are shaky. But with a dangerous offense, a seemingly plus match-up in the Cardinals, and a killer trio in the bullpen, it’s hard to imagine the Brewers needing their middle relief much as they march toward a World Series appearance.