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.

Testing Ron Roenicke

With the Brewers about to start a three-game series against the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, first-year manager Ron Roenicke gets his first real test tonight at Miller Park.

I can imagine that it’s not easy to get a ball club ready to play a 162-game season, and despite the Brewers’ rocky start, you have to give Roenicke credit on that account.  The Brewers have had some stumbling blocks-the bottom of the batting order being the most prominent in my mind-but have nonetheless managed a 35-28 record, one of the best in the National League.

But I still don’t feel like we have a sense of Ron Roenicke’s management in high-pressure situations like the one the Brewers enter tonight.  With first place on the line, and a hot Cardinals team no doubt ready to put some distance between their second-place challengers, will the Brewers elevate their game to the next level?  If last night is any indication, it could be a rough ride; three errors and no offense against an inexperienced pitcher like Jon Niese does not a contender make.

Roenicke is definitely going to need to tweak the lineup in this series; with Casey McGehee in the worst slump of his career, he simply cannot be placed in the lineup with the likes of Carlos Gomez and Yuniesky Betancourt.

But in-game management matters too; you can’t leave guys like Kameron Loe out there to get shelled for five runs when it becomes apparent that he does not have his stuff.  Normally I wouldn’t second-guess things like that, assuming that the manager is maybe playing a matchup or has some other sort of strategy, but the only thing Roenicke could come up with after the game was essentially, “We like Loe in that situation.”  Not quite a good enough explanation.

In any event, this series presents a great opportunity to observe not only how the players handle a high-stakes matchup; it will give us our first glimpse of Roenicke’s management in such situations, too.  And with the Central looking like it might come down to the wire, this series might not only be a crucial step in the playoff hunt, but also a preview of what is to come later in the season.