Axford departs

By Nathan Petrashek

play_g_axford1_sy_576John Axford is the only Brewers player I’ve booed.  I don’t remember when exactly it was, but I suspect it was some time in June or July of 2012, when his every other outing seemed to end in a (BS).  I’ve felt kind of guilty about that for a while now, because I’m usually a guy that likes to back up good players during their struggles.  Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

Axford was traded to the Cardinals today, so his time as a Brewer appears about over.  The trade for a player to be named later was really more about finances than anything else.  Axford was pretty good trending to okay, but he was making $5M this year and has three years of arbitration eligibility left.

The money would have been easy to swallow if Axford was still pitching like it was 2011.  In the year that brought the Brewers to the brink of another World Series, Axford delivered a microscopic 1.95 ERA over 73 innings, all while striking out better than a batter per inning.  He placed 17th in the MVP vote, a showing that I didn’t (and still don’t) think truly represented just how absolutely crucial he was to winning the division that year.  It was one of the most memorable season-long pitching performances I’ve seen.  To say Axford was a lockdown closer that year doesn’t give him half the credit he deserves.

But Axford has his share of fleas too, and that’s why I’m fully on board with jettisoning him.  We kind of suspected it at the time, but 2011 looks increasingly like a well-timed aberration.  Where Axford once had three brilliant pitches, only his slider ranks as above average this year (and just barely).  And though he hasn’t really lost much velocity on his fastball, Axford’s biggest bugaboo is the same today as it was when he took over for Trevor Hoffman in 2010: command.  2011 aside, Axford has always allowed too many batters to reach via the walk, which is a real problem when you have a propensity for giving up the long ball.

And then there were the character issues.  Much of the time, Axford was fun, easygoing, and entertaining, and he usually owned it after he blew a save.  But man, when that guy took to Twitter, he could troll with the best of them, often responding in kind to neanderthal tweets.  To his credit, he’s scaled back on that a lot this year.

For me, John Axford does not leave a complicated legacy.  I’m going to carry those memories of 2011 fondly, one of the greatest relief seasons I’ve had the pleasure of watching in person.  But today, Axford is just a guy who makes too much money.   That (and the lack of a long-term contract) makes him expendable.  Though I wish Axford well with the evil empire, the Brewers made the right move.

Unlucky Number 4

by Kevin Kimmes

The number 4 seems to carry with it, a very vexing connotation in Wisconsin sports lore, and as of yesterday, the number has reared it’s ugly head again. With no disrespect to Paul Molitor, who’s number 4 was retired by the Brewers in 1999, the number is best known to carry hurt feelings over a former NFL quarterback named Burt something-or-another. However, as of last night, it has become the “Magic Number” for the St Louis Cardinals.

With Milwaukee’s’ loss to the Cincinnati Reds and St Louis’ win over the hapless Houston Astros,  it appears that the clock may be quickly approaching midnight on the Cinderella story that was the Brewers’ post season push. Now, is this to say that all hope is lost for the Crew? Absolutely not. Hell, it’s baseball, and if I’ve learned anything from watching the game over the years it is that just when things seem to be at their bleakest, the baseball gods have a funny way of throwing a 12-6 curveball that reshuffles the status quo.

If the Cardinals win today, again, DO NOT PANIC! They will pick up a win, maybe 2, over a lesser club like Houston. It’s just the way it is. The positive is that while Milwaukee may struggle with the Reds, they finish at home with 3 games each against the Astros and Padres, while St Louis will be at home taking on 2 teams that are contenders, the Nationals and Reds.

The Brewers can pull this out. It may however come down to sweeping these final 8 games to do it. Fans I ask one favor of you, don’t stop Brewlieving!

2012 NL Central Division Preview: St Louis Cardinals

By: Ryan Smith

2012 is going to look very different for Cardinals fans without Pujols and LaRussa.

On the night of August 24th, 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals were barely breathing.

They had just been swept by the struggling Los Angeles Dodgers, dropping to 67-63 while the first-place Milwaukee Brewers were sitting at 78-54 after a scorching month.

Then something clicked.

Suddenly, the Cardinals became the hot team, clawing and scratching their way back into contention, eventually stealing the Wild Card from Atlanta on the final day of the regular season.

The rest, as they say, is history. The Cardinals, led by Chris Carpenter’s brilliance, ousted the heavy National League favorite Philadelphia Phillies. Then they took down the NL Central champion Brewers in six games, and finally made a miraculous comeback against the Rangers to become World Series Champions.

Believe it or not, 2012 might present even more daunting odds than the ones the Cardinals faced in late August of last year.

Milwaukee fans have all become familiar with the idea of replacing a franchise player in 2012, with Prince Fielder heading off to Detroit last month. But Prince Fielder isn’t Albert Pujols.

Somehow, the Cardinals must find a way to replace what many experts and fans consider to be the best right-handed hitter in the history of baseball.

And on top of that, they also have to replace Tony LaRussa. Like him or not (and, like most Brewer fans, I do not like him), LaRussa knew how to win games. Not many managers get to retire at the top of their game. LaRussa did, and now St. Louis must adjust to life without Pujols and LaRussa.

Now, before you write them off, you should know that the Cardinals did go out and sign Carlos Beltran, who is coming off a pretty nice 2011. They also will be getting ace Adam Wainwright back from Tommy John surgery. And Matt Holliday is still hitting in the heart of the order. So while they will most certainly look different than the St. Louis Cardinals of the last decade or so, they aren’t ready to just roll over and die. Last August should have taught us that.

Well, let’s get down to the 2012 preview for St. Louis.

(All stats courtesy of fangraphs.com)

2012 Projected Opening Day Lineup

Infield – 1B Lance Berkman, 2B Daniel Descalso, SS Rafael Furcal, 3B David Freese

Analysis – Other than maybe his mother, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the season that Berkman produced last season. Coming off of a disappointing 2010 and being asked to play full-time in the outfield, failure seemed like a safe bet for Fat Elvis. Instead, he posted a .301/.412/.547 line and a 5.0 WAR while helping St. Louis survive an early-season “slump” for Pujols. This year, Berkman returns to first base, where he is a much better fit than he was in the outfield. Still, I don’t see the 36-year-old replicating last season’s numbers, mainly because I think every hitter for the Cardinals is going to realize how much Pujols affected an opponent’s game plan every single night…Descalso probably has the lowest expectations of any player in this starting lineup. Even after playing in 148 games last year, he still remains a relative unknown when compared to the guys around him. Perhaps his biggest challenge will be adjusting to playing second base after logging most of his 2011 innings at the hot corner…Furcal came over in a mid-season trade last year, and I think most Cardinals fans would happily make that trade again. The problem with Furcal is that, when he actually can stay healthy, he just can’t play up to the expectations that the casual fan places on him. For every 2006 (.300/.369/.445) he produces, he also comes up with a 2011 (.231/.298/.348). On top of that, Furcal has only played more than 100 games in a season at the major league level twice since 2006, so he’s just not reliable enough to pencil in the lineup every night. It’s not so much “if” he gets hurts, but “when”…Freese started to gain a little notoriety during the regular season last year, producing a 2.7 WAR in just 97 games, as well as a respectable 3.9 UZR/150 while manning third base. However, any chance he had of quietly becoming a big-time player went out the window when he decided to play hero in that little thing called the World Series. And, for the record, I don’t think his postseason was a fluke; I think Freese is going to be a player who relishes the opportunity to play a bigger role on this team.

Outfield – LF Matt Holliday, CF Jon Jay, RF Carlos Beltran

If '12 Beltran is anything like '11 Beltran, St. Louis fans will be thrilled with their new outfield addition.

Analysis –
With Pujols wearing an Angels uniform for the next decade, it’s up to Holliday to lead the St. Louis offense. Last season, Holliday had yet another impressive season at the plate, accounting for a 5.0 WAR with a line of .296/.388/.525. While there may be some people who would suggest that Holliday will miss the protection that Pujols provided in the lineup, I don’t think that’ll be an issue. A good baseball player is a good baseball player, no matter who hits before or after him. Holliday hasn’t produced a SLG% below .500 since 2004. Frankly, the guy just knows how to produce at the plate, and that’s not going to change in ’12…In his first full season in the majors, Jay proved to be a pretty decent option for the Cardinals in the outfield (so much so that they traded away top prospect Colby Rasmus last summer). His 3.2 UZR/150 and 2.8 WAR from last season should make St. Louis fans feel comfortable with him in center, though he could find himself splitting time with Beltran when Allen Craig gets back into the lineup…Beltran was the big free agent acquisition that St. Louis made this offseason, and he’s coming off of a very successful 2011 in which he put up a .300/.385/.525 line. Normally, adding a player of Beltran’s caliber would make fans ecstatic, but I feel this signing went under the radar within the division because all of the attention has been focused on the departures of Pujols and Fielder and the arrival of Theo Epstein in Chicago. Still, a lineup with Beltran and Holliday in the middle will certainly give St. Louis an offense that makes the opposing pitcher work to get through six innings.

Rotation – RHP Chris Carpenter, RHP Adam Wainwright, LHP Jaime Garcia, RHP Kyle Lohse, RHP Jake Westbrook

Everyone's wondering how long it's going to take Adam Wainwright to find his pre-2011 form.

Analysis –
If there were any questions about Carpenter’s ability on the mound after his 11-9 regular season last year, his dominating postseason performance answered them. Carpenter produced a 3.31 xFIP and a 5.0 WAR while logging 237.1 innings pitched. He was really a victim of bad luck when you look at his win-loss record. When you look closer, you see that he produced one of his best seasons in recent memory, striking out more batters per nine innings (7.24) while walking fewer batters (2.09) and giving up fewer long balls (0.61) than he did the previous season…Wainwright is the wild card this season. And frankly, he’s also the reason that I’m skeptical on how well the Cardinals will perform in 2012. Before 2011, Wainwright had established himself as the true ace in St. Louis. But the season after Tommy John surgery? Now, I think Wainwright could be very dangerous in 2013, and he’ll certainly have his moments in 2012. But he’ll also have times where he struggles with his control and command. I also think the Cardinals will closely monitor his innings, so I just can’t get behind the idea that the Cardinals basically signed a Cy Young-caliber pitcher by getting a healthy Wainwright back. He’s going to have to work to get back to his former self…When I look at Jaime Garcia’s numbers from last year, the one that worries me the most as a Brewers fan is his BB/9 of 2.31, which was way down from the 3.53 he posted in 2010. Ever since he broke on to the scene two seasons ago, Garcia has shown signs that he could be a very dangerous starter every fifth game. If he continues to show the control he displayed in 2011, NL Central foes could have their hands full. And if he takes yet another step forward in ’12, Wainwright won’t need to regain his 2010 form right away…Sorry, Cardinals fans, but I don’t feel like talking about Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse all that much. To me, they are basically guys that you plug in the last two spots of this rotation because you don’t have anything better. Not until you sign Roy Oswalt’s corpse in July, that is.

Catchers – Yadier Molina

Analysis – Let me just get this off my chest: I strongly dislike Yadier Molina. Technically, I strongly dislike all St. Louis players, except for Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, because they suck. All of that being said, Molina is a pretty good catcher. He swings a good bat (.305/.349/.465) and is also a pretty good defensive catcher, though he threw out a career-low 29% of the steal attempts against him. The Cardinals know that he’s one of the best in the game at his position too, considering they just signed him to a 5-year, $75 million contract in February. Do I think he’s worth $15 million per year? No. Do I blame them for overpaying for Molina? No. He’s damn good, quite popular in St. Louis, and he’s only 28. I just hope T-Plush gets under his skin this year. I hear he has some anger issues.

RHP Shelby Miller could prove to be a valuable mid-season addition to the St. Louis rotation.

Bench/Bullpen Analysis – Jason Motte will start the season as the closer in St. Louis, and while I predict that he’ll have a rough patch or two, I don’t see the Cardinals having to deal with the closer issues they faced in recent years…Lance Lynn, Mark Rzepczynski, and Kyle McClellan all provide solid options out of the St. Louis bullpen, and McClellan proved last year that he can also provide spot starts if needed…I already mentioned Allen Craig as someone who will see some regular time once he’s healthy…Skip Schumaker and Tyler Greene will both get plenty of time in the lineup if Descalso struggles and Furcal makes his annual trip to the DL.

Overall Analysis – Much like Cincinnati, St. Louis is a team that seems to draw a variety of predictions for the upcoming year. I’ve read previews that have them winning the division and I’ve also seen them picked to finish third. Let’s be honest – the NL Central is a three-team race this year.

When I look at those three teams at the top, I just don’t see St. Louis matching up to Milwaukee’s rotation or Cincinnati’s bats and bullpen. At least not in their current form. They could make moves during the season to shore up some areas of weakness, either by signing free agents (Oswalt) or by promoting from within (stub prospect RHP Shelby Miller). Still, they strike me as a third-place team in the NL Central for 2012.

Then again, everyone pretty much counted them out last August too. Look how that turned out.

Prediction: 85-77, 3rd Place in the NL Central

(By the way, I know it may seem weird to save my third-place prediction for the last of my non-Brewers preview columns. But when you win the ‘ship, you get the curtain call.)

Back in “Must Win” Territory

Last night’s game – Game 5 of the NLCS – was simply dreadful if you’re a Brewers fan.  Defensive miscues and a lack of clutch hitting deprived the Brewers of a victory in what would have been, absent such errors, a very winnable game.  Jamie Garcia tossed less than five innings, but gave up only one run and struck out five.  It was the Cardinals’ bullpen – a regular season weakness turned postseason strength for the Red Birds – that was again so, so good, tossing up scoreless frame after scoreless frame the rest of the way.  The Crew gave the Cardinals plenty of extra outs on three fielding errors and a throwing error, and the Cardinals took advantage for a 7-1 win and a 3-2 advantage in the series.

Tomorrow, Game 6, is an elimination game for the Milwaukee Brewers.  You can pat yourself on the back knowing you’re a virtual prophet if you saw this coming; that the Cardinals, who have such a historical and philosophical rivalry with the Crew, would be the ones to push the NL Central Champions to the brink of elimination.

So all eyes shift to the man who will take the mound for Milwaukee tomorrow night: Shaun Marcum.

My pizza delivery driver last night wasn’t impressed with Ron Roenicke’s choice of pitcher.  “You’ve heard Roenicke’s throwing Marcum out there for Game 6?”  It took me a moment to register that he was asking because I was wearing my NL Central Championship t-shirt.  “Yeah, I think its a good choice,” I said.  He looked at me, eyes burning, asking if I was serious.  And then explained precisely why he could manage the Brewers better than Ron Roenicke.

I support Roenicke’s choice.*  It is certainly true that Marcum has not been, in Roenicke’s words, “quite as sharp” as he had been earlier in the season.  But for a variety of reasons, I don’t think a lot of Brewers fans are giving Marcum a fair shake.  His pitch location the last few games, if not his pitch selection, has been fairly good, and there really haven’t been any significant velocity dips (not that Marcum is a power pitcher anyway).  His mechanics (arm slot, balance, etc) don’t appear to have noticeably changed, though such things can be subtle.

I’ve come to believe the problem lies in pitch selection.

I put together some graphs of a few of Marcum’s starts this season that illustrate the problem.  I selected two starts in the season in which Marcum pitched pretty well.  In the first on May 16, Marcum threw seven strong innings against the Dodgers, giving up one earned run on five hits with four strikeouts.  Marcum throws his plus-change about 39% of the time.  Combined, he throws his three fastballs (four-seam, two-seam, and cutter) about 33% of the time.

The next start I looked at was June 12 against the Cardinals.  Marcum again goes seven strong innings, this time allowing three runs on five hits with eight strikeouts. He uses his change even more, about 41%, while his fastballs collectively constitute about 46%.

Here’s where it starts to get hairy.  In his last three starts – September 26 against Pittsburgh, October 4 against the D’Backs in the NLDS, and October 10 against the Cardinals in the NLCS, Marcum relies heavily on his fastballs.

On September 26, Marcum threw his fastballs nearly three times as often as his change.  That ratio climbed to eight to one in his abbreviated start in Arizona.  And by the time we get to the NLCS, he’s throwing his very hittable fastballs about five times as often as his changeup.  The diminishing use of Marcum’s best pitch is puzzling given that his fastballs really don’t work without the change.

Although Marcum seems to have taken a fancy to the heat as the season grows colder, Marcum simply doesn’t have the velocity to support his heavy reliance on fastballs.  He needs to go to the change early and often tomorrow.  If he can put that pitch where he wants it – and the location data suggests he can still do that – he will hopefully be back to old form.  You can wonder why Marcum doesn’t have the confidence in his change he once displayed – only Marcum can answer that question – but the path out of this slump seems pretty clear as long as there is no injury or fatigue issue (and both Roenicke and Marcum assure us there is not).

You have to believe that pitching coach Rick Kranitz and the rest of the Brewers’ managerial staff have noted this pattern and are working to correct it.

So where does that leave us?  I would just like to give Brewer Nation a little reminder how we got here.  Marcum was a huge part of our regular season success and deserves credit for taking us this far.  He also deserves our support in a time when he is not doing so well.  Greinke has pitched poorly at times this postseason and yet seemingly gets a pass because the offense can generate a lot of runs for him.

Best of luck to Marcum tomorrow.  And should things get off track and this turns out to be the final game of the season – which would be especially disappointing given the opponent – we should be proud of all that the Brewers have accomplished this year.

*Not that I’m a Roenicke apologist by any means.  In my eyes, his decision to play Mark Kotsay in center field in Game 3 was a fatal error that cost us that game.  And sure enough, first inning Kotsay can’t reach a ball that any respectable center fielder could have grabbed.  Again, you cannot give the Red Birds extra outs, and that mistake falls squarely on Roenicke.

The Deadliest Cardinals Lineup Yet

The Cardinals bullpen was stellar yesterday in Game 3 of the NLCS, shutting down the Brewers’ offense after Chris Carpenter coughed up three runs early.  But the Cardinals’ offense picked Carpenter up, scoring four runs in the first off an uncharacteristically wild Yovani Gallardo.  The win gave the Cardinals a 2-1 advantage in the NLCS, and puts today’s Game 4 firmly in “must win” territory for the Milwaukee Brewers.

And so its not much of a surprise that LaRussa wants his proverbial boot on the team’s throat.

Ron Roenicke has learned a thing or two in the first three games, the first lesson being that you cannot pitch to Albert Pujols.  Pujols is hitting an insane .636 in the NLCS, with 6 RBI and a home run.  After doubling in a run yesterday, Pujols found himself all but taken out of the game by intentional walks (though he did nab second on a wild pitch).  Hard for the one-man wrecking crew to do much damage if he doesn’t get an opportunity to swing.

Thankfully, Matt Holliday, batting fourth, wasn’t able to make the Brewers play for the walks, striking out both times to end the inning.

But old LaRussa is too crafty to let that situation play out again.

Today’s lineup features Pujols batting third, but instead of Matt Holliday following behind, its David Freese.  Freese has been swinging an extraordinarily hot bat in the NLCS, to the tune of a .500 average with 2 home runs and 6 RBI.  Yes, David Freese has actually outslugged Albert Pujols.  So now when the Brewers walk Pujols, they’ll be bringing up perhaps the Cardinals’ hottest hitter.  And then the Brewers will still have to deal with Matt Holliday, batting fifth.  Lance Berkman gets the day off.

Tony LaRussa obviously doesn’t want this thing coming back to Milwaukee, and with good reason.  The Brewers certainly have a shot to win tonight – of the eight position players in the Cardinals’ batting order, only Pujols (.286) and Freese (.353) have career averages greater than .260 against Milwaukee’s Randy Wolf) – but LaRussa’s move has made the road that much more difficult.

A Marked Man

Human perception is a funny thing.

Let me posit a couple scenarios.

In the first, Shaun Marcum starts Game 2 of the NLCS at Miller Park. He does not have his best stuff, but some impressive defensive plays behind him limit the damage to two runs.  In the first, Marcum fields a Jon Jay bunt for an out before allowing a solo home run to Albert Pujols. Nyjer Morgan saves two runs in the third with his glove in center field, but Marcum allows another run in the fourth when Nick Punto singles in Yadier Molina.  Marcum is removed after that inning, and the bullpen plays scoreless baseball the rest of the way.  The Brewers win, 3-2, on a Prince Fielder home run in the eighth.

In the second, Shaun Marcum also starts Game 2 of the NLCS at Miller Park.  He does not have his best stuff, but is severely harmed by defensive lapses behind him.  He misplays a Jon Jay bunt in the first, and Albert Pujols follows up with a two-run home run.  Nyjer Morgan cannot haul in a couple of deep balls in the third, and the Cardinals again score two runs.  They score a fifth run in the fourth when Nick Punto singles in Yadier Molina, and that is all for Marcum.  The bullpen suffers an absolute meltdown after that, allowing seven more runs to score.  Prince Fielder hits a meaningless home run in the eighth, and the Brewers lose, 12-3.

The second scenario played out last night at Miller Park, but it could just as easily have been the first.  And yet today, Milwaukee is clamoring for Shaun Marcum’s head. During Marcum’s last two innings at Miller Park, I had to listen to the guy next to me repeatedly shout, “You suck, Marcum!”  Now there’s motivation for you.

Marcum, of course, doesn’t suck.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  During the regular season, Marcum had the team’s second-best starter ERA at 3.54.  He held opponents to a .232 average and allowed about 1.2 walks or hits per inning, best among the team’s starters.

There’s no doubt Marcum didn’t have his best stuff last night, but he didn’t pitch as badly as most seem to think. Sports radio this morning thought it was terribly funny to play a postgame quote from Marcum – declaring the Pujols home run pitch a good one – side by side with broadcast audio of the pitch – “right down the middle!”  Which was it?

Not a terribly good pitch, but not right down Wisconsin Avenue either.  Looks like a fastball high and away that didn’t have a whole lot of movement.  Might have been tough for any other batter, but Pujols doesn’t miss those pitches often.

And here are the rest of Marcum’s pitches in Game 2 of the NLCS.  The ones that hurt him were not right over the plate; in fact, except for that one pitch to Pujols, all the hits came on pitches either low or inside.  It looks like Marcum was simply beat by good Cardinal hitting.

And as long as we’re talking hypotheticals, let’s pretend, just for the sake of argument, that Marcum gave up the five runs but the bullpen set down five scoreless frames after that.  That would have put the final score at 5-3 on a late Prince Fielder home run.  Instead of walking away from the game shaking their heads, Brewers fans would have walked away thinking the Cardinals had eked out a narrow victory.  Would Brewers nation still be so hard on Marcum?  Doubtful.  I think our perception of Marcum was tainted more by what happened after he left the game than what happened during his four ill-fated innings.

Our perception is also tainted by recent history.  Marcum didn’t have a clean slate heading into the playoffs, allowing seven earnies in his abbreviated final regular season start against the Pirates.  And folks are quick to point out that his two mid-September starts against the Phillies and Colorado ended nearly as bad.  That all fits the narrative of Shaun Marcum as a pitcher whose first 200+ inning season has taken its toll on his arm.  They forget to mention, or just gloss over, his spectacular starts on September 4th and 20th, in which Marcum allowed one run over a combined fifteen innings with fifteen strikeouts and one walk.

So let’s cut Marcum a little slack.  Maybe we can’t figure out what’s wrong with him because there’s nothing wrong; he’s simply getting beat by good hitting.  Or maybe its something as simple as his pitch selection; as Jack Moore and Tom Haudricourt point out, he’s not throwing his bread-and-butter changeup nearly as often as he should be.

Whatever the reason for Marcum’s struggles, I can’t believe I’m hearing people seriously suggesting that Chris Narveson (regular season: 4.45 ERA, 1.4 WHIP, 3.6 BB/9) should get the start in Game 6 over Marcum. We’re talking the NLCS here.  If we’re to make our stand in Game 6, I want the pitcher with the highest upside out there.  With all due respect to Narveson, that is Shaun Marcum, and he’s shown it over and over again this season.

Home Field Advantage?

I’m not a big believer in the significance of home/road splits.  Prince Fielder hit .326 at home during the regular season but only .272 away.  Nyjer Morgan had the opposite problem; he hits.279 at Miller Park, but .328 on the road.  Corey Hart batted .316 at home and .252 away.

Ballparks can affect hitters and pitchers; large ballparks, for example, might favor pitchers, while smaller parks like Great American in Cincinnati are a hitter’s delight. But those stats should balance out over the course of a season at teams travel to different parks.  And those splits can probably be explained by other things, like, say, the opposing pitcher, or (in Hart’s case, for example) where he hit in the batting order.

But I don’t know how to explain what Zack Greinke has done at Miller Park this year.

A 3.13 home ERA versus a 4.70 road ERA is a head scratcher, especially since the Keg isn’t exactly known as a pitcher’s park.  The same is true for Greinke’s 1.29 road WHIP versus 1.13 at home.  All that led Greinke to a 5-6 road record, but a perfect 11-0 at home during the regular season.

There’s some aspect of luck in this, we know that.  Wins and losses are a pretty arbitrary way to measure a pitcher’s value, especially in the Moneyball age.  A player’s record is only as good as his run support, and Greinke’s had a lot of it.  The Brewers scored 6 or more runs in 16 of Greinke’s 28 starts; 3 or more in 21.

Greinke continued his perfect trend at home in the postseason with a little help from his friends.  In Game 2 of the NLDS, Greinke was throwing BP to the Arizona Diamondbacks, allowing four runs on three dingers and lasting only five innings.  The offense bailed him out, though, with a five-run sixth, and Greinke maintained his perfect home record.

An eerily similar scene unfolded today at the Keg.  Greinke was not sharp in Game 1 of the NLCS, tossing 107 pitches in 6 innings, only 67 for strikes.  He walked two and came damn close to walking about six more; I don’t know how many 3-2 counts he was in today.  And his six earned runs – three of them off a David Freese round-tripper – would place this start firmly among Greinke’s worst of the season.

And yet on a day the Brewers should have been soundly defeated, the offense again bailed Greinke out to maintain his perfect home record.

Some people just have all the luck.

The First Step Toward a Championship

This is where we expected to be at the beginning of the season, right?

Never mind that Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder formed one of the most epic one-two punches in perhaps baseball history.  Never mind that the team won a franchise-best 96 games during the regular season.  And never mind that the team had three legitimate aces to form the front end of their starting rotation, and a bullpen that is the envy of all postseason teams.

It would have been a long offseason for Brewers fans to endure if there hadn’t been any championship games in Milwaukee.

So with Game 1 of what is sure to be a testy and classic matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals, I’m ready to declare the season a success no matter how the Brewers fare in the NLCS.

There is absolutely no love lost between the Brewers and the Cardinals.  When Lance Berkman was questioned about that very topic, he replied simply and directly: “And that’s correct.”  The last time these two teams saw each other, Chris Carpenter threw an f-bomb at Nyjer Morgan, who would have taken on the entire Cardinals roster had he not been restrained.  I’m giving a better than 50-percent chances of a bench-clearing brawl.

That all adds to the high-tension that already accompanies a rematch of the 1982 World Series, won in seven games by the Cardinals.  But the Brewers dominated the Cardinals in Game 1 of that series; lefty Mike Caldwell tossed a three-hit complete game shutout and the Brewers’ offense – Harvey’s Wallbangers – exploded for ten runs on seventeen hits.  Molitor and Yount, yesterday’s Fielder and Braun, combined to go nine-for-twelve with two RBI each.

Caldwell was not a strikeout pitcher, but the Brewers send one out today in Zack Greinke, who had 201 strikeouts in only 171 innings during the regular season.  Greinke was consistent with his strikeouts in his short start against the D’Backs in Game 2 of the NLDS (7 K, 5 IP), but allowed four runs on eight hits. Greinke, as he has all season, really struggled to keep the ball down in the zone, and three of the hits were home runs. Brewers fans won’t have much to cheer about today if he does that against a Cardinals lineup anchored by Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman.

But enough of the game minutiae for now.  The Brewers have their first playoff series win since 1982.  And that’s something even the Cardinals can’t ruin.

 

 

A good week

Life is pretty good for Brewer nation these days, with the Crew having won nine of their last ten.  Their primary competition in the Central, the Cardinals, are three games back, well within striking distance but needing to make up some ground with only fifty games left to play.  The other Central competition has fallen off; the Pirates are sporting a nine-game losing streak, sliding back in the standings to where most people expected.  Cincinnati has had its share of problems, too, and is now nine and a half games back.

The picture wasn’t quite as rosy a week ago.  The Cards were only a game and a half back, with the Pirates right on their heels at three and a half.  Even Cincinnati was only a nice win streak away at six and a half.  But what a difference a week can make.

After completing a sweep of the Cubs at home, the Brewers absolutely mowed down the Astros to complete rare back-to-back sweeps.  Although unexpected, these victories were not really that impressive.  You need to beat bad teams to get to the playoffs.  The Brewers are better in virtually all aspects of the game than both the Cubs (49-65)  and the Astros (37-76).

Then, starting last Monday, the Cardinals came to town.

Chris Carpenter looked dominant for four innings, but fell apart in the fifth as the Brewers hung five runs on him.  The day highlighted a Brewers offense that has been consistently finding itself lately.  Since the All-Star Break, the team is batting .279, a far cry from the .257 it showcased between March 31 and July 10.  Corey Hart and Nyjer Morgan were a big part of that offensive day, each going 2-5 with a run; one of Morgan’s hits was a three-run double that cleared the bases.  Hart has been red-hot since the break, with a .298 average and a .359 OBP to go with 6 HR and 13 RBI.  The numbers are even more amazing if you look over his last five starts (.435 BA, .458 OBP, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 6 R).  Morgan, for his part, has been getting it done all year; Paul Molitor’s old nickname “The Ignitor” would be an accurate description to apply to the eccentric lefty hitter.  Morgan isn’t a power guy, but his skills are well-suited to the two hole, and he has done a great job finding ways to contribute to the offense since the break (.329 BA, .365 OBP, 6 R, 8 RBI, 4 HBP).

Unfortunately, any hope of a third consecutive sweep was washed away on Tuesday, as the Cards topped the Brewers 8-7 in extras.  The game wasn’t really all that well-played; the Brewers had plenty of opportunities to win the thing but, as I’ll explain, failed to capitalize in a drama-filled battle.  Takashi Saito came inside on annual All-Star Albert Pujols, striking his wrist and causing visible pain.  The pitch was not intentional, simply an errant throw that happened to catch Pujols on a previous injury.  In the bottom of the inning, Cardinals skipper Tony LaRussa, or as he shall henceforth be known, Cardinal Jackass, summoned reliever Jason Motte with one purpose in mind: to bean leadoff hitter Ryan Braun.  Motte actually missed with his first pitch; Braun ducked out of the way.  But Braun wasn’t able to escape the second.  Fast forward a few batters and the Brewers had an opportunity to make Cardinal Jackass look really foolish with the bases loaded and no outs.  But the offense came up empty handed and the Brewers went on to lose the game in the eleventh on a Lance Berkman bloop single.

What was remarkable was Tony LaRussa’s rambling and bizarre postgame interview in which his decision to throw at Braun was repeatedly questioned.  LaRussa admitted the pitch that struck Pujols was not intentional, and cautioned that throwing inside can be dangerous as there are lots of bones in the hand and face.  Apparently LaRussa tried to educate the Brewers by … imagine that … throwing up and in at Braun.  And LaRussa’s assertion that hitting Braun was not intentional is nothing short of laughable.  “We threw two balls in there real good just to send a message. If he ducks them, it’s all over and we don’t hit him.”  Whatever, Tony.  Add to all that LaRussa’s pregame accusation  that the Brewers were intentionally adjusting videoboard lighting levels to favor the team, and the fact that LaRussa felt it necessary to call Brewers colorman Bill Schroeder because Schroeder accurately described LaRussa’s retaliation as “bush league,” and it is obvious that LaRussa has become completely unhinged.  This has been a long time coming, but the constant whining of this Cardinals team has me hating them more than the Cubs.

Fortunately, the Brewers were able to get back on track the following day to salvage a series win.  Randy Wolf did not look good (6 IP, 5 ER, 2 K), but that really didn’t matter as Casey McGehee provided most of the offense the team would need.  McGehee hit three home runs off Edwin Jackson and accumulated five RBI out of the five-spot, an amazing offensive outpouring when you consider that McGehee had only five HR coming into the day.  Another model of post-All-Star Break success, McGehee is batting .319 since July 14 and slugging .507 with 10 R and 14 RBI.

And of course I would be remiss not to note that Yuniesky Betancourt is one of the hottest offensive shortstops in baseball right now, hitting .343/.365/.529 to go with three HR and fourteen RBI.

This offense is really starting to gel and has become very exciting to watch.  After struggling to put runs across the plate at times in the early part of the season, the Brewers have hung at least five runs on the opposing team in every game they’ve played over the last week, including an 8-1 victory at Houston yesterday and a 7-5 victory today.

And with the Brewers’ outstanding starting pitching (I believe a recent number was something like 15 quality starts in a row), this team looks like a real playoff threat.  And perhaps the Brewers can shut the Cardinals up in the next road series in the only way that matters; by winning the whole damn thing.

 

Tony LaRussa approves

Well, it appears that Tony LaRussa, along with every fan in Brewer nation, approves of the way the Brewers handled their three-game series against the Cardinals.  Following a disappointing 1-2 series against the Mets, the Brewers came back with a vengeance against the Central-division leaders, sweeping the Redbirds and claiming sole possession of first place.  LaRussa was uncharacteristically complimentary:

“I don’t want to be melodramatic. This is June and we have to be ready for Washington on Tuesday. We came in here to win a series and they outmanaged us and outplayed us.”

Yeah, that pretty much sums up the series.  Ron Roenicke tinkered with the lineup early and often, giving the offensively inept Yuniesky Betancourt consecutive days off on Friday and Saturday.  Craig Counsell, who received consecutive starts in his stead, had a huge day on Friday, going 3-3 with 3 runs and a walk.  That change allowed Roenicke to keep the slumping McGehee in the lineup, who came up with two hits and a walk in the series and smoked a few balls for outs.*  On Sunday, Mark Kotsay got the nod in center field and came up big with an RBI double in the sixth, which sparked a Brewers rally.  Clinging to a one-run lead, Roenicke replaced Kotsay with Carlos Gomez at the top of the ninth, a genius move that may have saved the game when Gomez made a spectacular grab on a ball Colby Rasmus hit to deep center. 

So, I’d say that, with respect to the question posed here, Ron Roenicke has definitely shown he can play with the big kids.  After all, it’s not often that a first-year manager receives praise from a future hall-of-fame counterpart.

*I continue to believe that McGehee is the key to consistency in this team’s offense.  If McGehee comes around, Roenicke doesn’t have to worry about also starting Gomez and Betancourt; but a slumping McGehee combined with those two (or Nieves at catcher) spells disaster.  Without McGehee, this is a two-dimensional offense (Braun and Fielder) that does not look consistent enough for a deep playoff run.