ST. LOUIS -- After taking their playoff aspirations to the penultimate day of the season, the Brewers capped off their strong season with a series victory over the Cardinals. Their 86th victory -- the most by a Brewers team since 2011 -- came in a 6-1 win at Busch Stadium on Sunday.
The Cardinals, who stumbled to the finish with losses in seven of their final nine games, end the year as an 83-win club.
Asked how 10 games over .500 sounded to him in light of Milwaukee's modest preseason expectations, manager Craig Counsell said, "It sounds like we're short of the playoffs, that's what it sounds like. We got to play meaningful games until [Saturday] and that's fun. But we fell short. It doesn't take away from [the fact that] this was a good season, because this was a good season."
As they did in every game this series, the Brewers struck first. This time, they pounced on Cardinals rookie starter Jack Flaherty for four first-inning runs, three of which scored on Brett Phillips' two-out home run. Flaherty, a late substitution to start on Sunday, went winless in five starts after being called up and finished with a 6.33 ERA over 21 1/3 innings.
"I think those last four innings were me being able to settle down and pitch my game," Flaherty said after his five-inning performance. "I felt like in the first I fell behind a little bit, made a mistake. I was really one pitch away from getting out of it with just the one run."
Aaron Wilkerson's exposure to the big leagues was even shorter, but the Brewers right-hander capped it with a sensational finish. Thrust into the spot start once Milwaukee was eliminated from postseason contention on Saturday, Wilkerson opened his third career appearance by retiring the first 17 batters he faced. A sixth-inning single by Jose Martinez ended that run.
Wilkerson, whose only other blemish was Randal Grichuk's solo homer in the seventh, earned his first Major League win with the effort.
"I was pretty comfortable on the mound today. I think the pressure, or lack thereof, kind of took a lot of weight off my shoulders," said Wilkerson, a 28-year-old rookie. "It's almost surreal right now. I have the lineup card and all that stuff. It's kind of setting in now."
Jesus Aguilar padded Milwaukee's lead with a two-run homer in the eighth, and reliever Carlos Torres wiggled out of a bases-loaded, no-out threat to end the Cardinals' best offensive chance to peck away a half-inning later. The Brewers finished their 19-game season series against the Cardinals with 11 wins.
"There were a lot of positives to take from this year, because you saw a youth movement, you saw a lot of players come up and contribute that weren't household names," said Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak. "I think we're in a good spot to build on, but there's obviously some things this offseason we're going to have to work on."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Long gone: Phillips punctuated the Brewers' four-run inning and his rookie season with a three-run blast off Flaherty. The homer, Phillips' fourth this season, traveled 400 feet with an exit velocity of 100.7 mph as projected by Statcast™. With the blast, plus Aguilar's later on, the Brewers finished the year with 224 home runs, their highest total since 2007.
"Obviously we would have liked to be in the playoffs, but this is as good as it was going to get, going into the offseason and 2018 on top with a win," said Phillips, who batted .348 while playing superior defense and winning regular center-field duties down the stretch. "We've got a great core group here, and I'm already looking forward to Spring Training and competing for this job next year."
Said Counsell: "Look, it was kind of an unexpected opportunity … but he earned this opportunity and he played really well. It's certainly a player that is going to maybe change the way we think about some things this offseason, for sure."
First blemish: It took a pinch-hit at-bat from Martinez to foil Wilkerson's try at a perfect game. Hitting with two out in the sixth, Martinez dropped a single into right field to give the Cardinals their first baserunner and end his own season with a 27-game on-base streak. That streak is the longest by a Cardinals rookie since Albert Pujols reached safely in 48 consecutive games in 2001.
"A lot of positives, but we came up short. It was not what we intended to do. But there were obviously a lot of positives, and those are the ones we're going to continue to look at. We have to continue to evaluate some of the ways we can get better, and there are a lot of ways in which every one of us can. That really starts in the morning with our meetings, figuring out where do we go from here." -- Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, wrapping up the season
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
With an announced crowd of 44,787 on Sunday, the Cardinals' final season attendance total hit 3,447,937. It was the second-highest total in Major League Baseball and the fifth-highest in Busch Stadium III history.
When starting third baseman Hernan Perez and shortstop Eric Sogard swapped positions at the start of the second inning, it appeared super-utility man Perez would finally get his wish to play all nine innings in a game. Alas, they switched back in the third inning and remained in those spots the rest of the game.
So what explained the one-inning switch? The players did it on their own, hoping to coerce Counsell to take it the rest of the way.
"They were hinting to me that should happen, but I rained on the parade," said Counsell, who explained he did so simply because he wanted to win the game. "They told some coaches; I was fine with it. I could say that it was advance scouting, because they both made good plays that inning."
The position Perez wanted most was catcher, the only spot he has yet to appear in the Major Leagues (he pitched in Washington on July 27). Perez squatted in the doorway of Counsell's office on Sunday morning as a not-so-subtle hint.
"I respect his decision. He said to me, 'You could get hurt, one foul to the mask,'" Perez said. "I know. I understand. It's going to happen one day."
Cardinals infielder Aledmys Diaz exited in the second inning after sustaining a left hamstring strain while trying to beat out an infield hit. Diaz, who was replaced at third base by Greg Garcia, was making his third start since returning from an extended stint in the Minor Leagues. More >
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
As he hobbled off the field with a hamstring injury, Diaz also lost a base hit. The Brewers challenged the ruling on the field, and, following a 42-second review, the call was overturned. Diaz became the final out of the inning.
The Cardinals used their challenge successfully in the eighth to set up a bases-loaded opportunity. The 65-second review determined that Brewers second baseman Jonathan Villar came off the base as he took a feed for a force play. Carson Kelly was awarded the base, but the Cardinals could not capitalize on the opportunity.