Tom Trebelhorn ushered in a new era of baseball in Milwaukee when he led the Brewers to a 91-win breakout season in 1987. Hopes were high in ’88. The final verdict depends on your perspective—the 1988 Milwaukee Brewers slipped a bit and weren’t quite as good. But the AL East they then resided in wasn’t quite as good either, so the Brewers stayed in contention to the final weekend of the season.
Milwaukee was an American League franchise prior to 1998. And prior to 1994, each league was split into just an East and West divisions with only the first-place team advancing. The Brewers had finished behind Detroit and Toronto in ’87. And, just like today, Boston and New York could be counted on to contend. The seven-team division was rounded out by typically lowly Cleveland and included Baltimore, who would have an awful time of it this season.
In their ’87 campaign, the Brewers had finished second in the American League in runs scored and ninth in staff ERA. They reversed those rankings for ’88. Teddy Higuera continued to be the staff ace and he won 16 games with a 2.45 ERA. The young arms behind Higuera in the rotation all made significant strides forward. Chris Bosio and Don August finished with ERAs in the low 3s. Bill Wegman’s ERA was at 4.12.
All four starters stayed reasonably healthy and gave the rotation a steadiness that had been missing in 1987. The fifth starting job rotated between Mike Birkbeck, Tom Filer and Juan Nieves, all varying degrees of average.
Nieves also did some work out of the bullpen, an indication that this highly touted young starter wasn’t going to reach his full potential. Chuck Crim was an effective reliever with a 2.91 ERA and Odell Jones was respectable. The pen ultimately came to closer Dan Plesac, whose nasty slider led him to 30 saves and a 2.41 ERA.
But the offense let the arms down this year. It was no fault of this franchise’s two great Hall of Fame players. Robin Yount posted a stat line of .369 on-base percentage/.465 slugging percentage in centerfield. Paul Molitor played third and his stat line was .384/.452. Molitor also stole 41 bases and scored 115 runs.
The problem was that there was no one besides Yount and Molitor having a good year. Highly regarded young players in catcher B.J. Surhoff and outfielder Glenn Braggs did not hit. Neither did an old-school veteran at second base, Jim Gantner. Nor did first baseman Greg Brock. Power-hitting rightfielder Rob Deer saw his numbers slip, as did young shortstop Dale Sveum. Up and down the lineup there was disappointment.
A 2-6 start on the East Coast to open the year didn’t exactly match the thrills of 1987’s 13-game winning streak out of the chute. But the Brewers started to play better. They went 5-2 when those Eastern teams made return trips to Milwaukee’s old County Stadium. At the Memorial Day turn, the Brewers were 25-23. The Yankees were setting the pace in the AL East, with the surprising Indians and defending division champion Tigers close behind. Milwaukee was in fourth, 7 ½ games out and narrowly ahead of Boston.
The early portion of the summer was more of the same pedestrian baseball and the Brewers hit the All-Star break at 44-43. They were tied for fourth with Boston, nine games back and Detroit was now in the lead.
A schedule stretch against the AL East from July 25 to August 18 saw the Brewers go 10-15. They fell as many as 10 ½ games back. For all intents and purposes they were done. Even when they nudged back to within eight games, a four-game series in Detroit over Labor Day weekend was absolute must-win—and probably must-sweep.
The Brewers stunned everyone by doing exactly that. They won Thursday’s opener 6-2 on the strength of five runs in the fifth. Wegman tossed a complete-game four-hitter to win Friday’s game 5-zip. Jeffrey Leonard, acquired in June to boost the ailing offense, hit a two-run blast in the first inning on Saturday night to jumpstart a 7-3 win. In the Sunday finale, Surhoff broke up a scoreless tie in the sixth with a three-run blast and the Brewers won 6-1.
In the blink of an eye, they were73-67 and just four games back in a race where the Tigers were now tied at the top with the Red Sox. The Indians had long ago faded, while the Yankees and Blue Jays were still in the mix.
Nobody was really taking control of this race, at least by the standards of what it typically took to win a division. So the opportunity was there. Milwaukee kept playing reasonably well and nudged their record to 84-73. The problem was that Boston was keeping pace. Even as Detroit came back to the pack, Milwaukee was still five out with a week to go.
They also had a light schedule with only two games from Monday to Thursday. It turned out that on the sidelines was a pretty safe place to be. The Brewers swept their two games while the Red Sox messed around and lost three of four. Going into the final weekend, Milwaukee was three games out with three to play.
The problem was that the Brewers were finishing the season in Oakland where the A’s were on their way to the best record in baseball. Milwaukee got a break on Friday evening when Boston, with Roger Clemens on the mound, lost. But facing Oakland ace Dave Stewart, so did the Brewers. They only managed four hits, fell 7-1 and the race was over. The fact the Red Sox lost on Saturday and Sunday as well would not matter.
Milwaukee’s final record was 87-75 and they were one of five teams to finish with 3 ½ games of first place. It was a good year. The unfortunate thing is that in what was a respectable five-year run under Trebelhorn, it was the closest they would get to first place.