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.



What Could Have Been

Rollie Fingers.jpg

I was stuck in traffic last night on highway 41 immediately prior to the Brewers game, the victim of one of several storm closures.  Put a guy at a standstill on a highway and the mind tends to wander.

The guys over at 1250 AM interviewed Rollie Fingers on their pregame show.  About halfway through the interview, Fingers got the inevitable question: “What was it like to have to watch the 1982 World Series from the bench, physically unable to contribute?” 

It, of course, was terrible for Fingers to watch his team play (and lose) the Series.  His torn arm muscle would cause him to miss the entire 1983 season.  “And every time I come back to Milwaukee,” he said, “I probably get asked twenty-five or thirty times, ‘Do you think we could have won the Series if you were healthy?'”  And just then, I thought of Ben Sheets.

Ben Sheets.jpgSheets, I think, gets a bad rap from Brewers fans.  Between 2005 and 2007, he was injured often and pitched only about 400 total innings, but had all-star stuff when he was able to go.  In fact, Sheets was a four-time all-star during his career in Milwaukee.  He places fifth on the franchise list of winning pitchers (86), third in ERA (3.72), and first in strikeouts (1,206).  He also holds the team record for most strikeouts in a single season (264). 

Sheets missed the 2008 postseason with a flexor tendon tear in his right elbow.  So, in the car, I found myself wondering; just what would have happened if Sheets had been able to start in the 2008 NLDS against the eventual World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies?

Truth be told, probably not much would have changed.  Sheets, not Yovani Gallardo, would likely have been the Game 1 pitcher; the postseason start was Gallardo’s first after tearing his ACL on May 1, 2008.  But pitching wasn’t the Brewers main problem in Game 1.  An error allowed three runs to score, and Cole Hamels blanked the Brewers over eight innings.  They finally got one in the ninth of closer Brad Lidge, but it was too little, too late.

We can assume Sabathia would have started Game 2 (another loss), pushing Gallardo back to Game 3 against Jamie Moyer.  But Game 3 was actually the lone win in the series for the Crew.  And it happened on the back of Dave Bush’s 5 1/3 inning of one-run ball.  Hard to imagine the recovering Gallardo forging a better line.

Maybe the difference would have come in Game 4, when Jeff Suppan was torched for five runs in three innings of work.  Could Dave Bush have done better?  Maybe, but there’s no guaranteeing Suppan wouldn’t have received the start in that game even if Sheets had been healthy; Suppan was, after all, signed to be the postseason veteran.  Offensively, the Brewers only mustered two runs in the game, which probably wouldn’t have been enough to secure a win anyway.

So even with a healthy Sheets, I can easily see the Brewers dropping that series.  Unlike Rollie Fingers in the close World Series loss to the Cardinals, I don’t think we can say that Sheets’ presence could have dramatically altered the Brewers’ first postseason appearance in 26 years.