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.