Brewers make August their month of success
There was no way to know the Brewers were about to embark on the greatest one-month surge in franchise history.
“That seems like a long time ago,” said third baseman Casey McGehee, who provided the key blow that night with a two-run triple—his first three-bagger of the year—as the Brewers hung on for a 3-2 victory over Dempster and the Cubs.
When the Brewers took the field that evening, they were in third place in the National League Central Division, a half-game behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, who were in a virtual tie for first.
As the Brewers awakened to a much-anticipated day off Thursday, the NL Central standings showed them 10 games ahead of the Cardinals and 15½ games on top of the Pirates, who had sunk to fourth place.
There are really nice months, and there are truly amazing months. Winning 24 of 29 games qualifies for the latter, and that’s what the Brewers did to surge toward their first division title in 29 years.
How did the Brewers go from mere playoff contender to runaway leader of the division?
The easy answer is pitching. A starting rotation bolstered by the off-season additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum began piling up quality starts and a bullpen strengthened by the trade for Francisco Rodriguez at the all-star break regularly locked down games at the other end, resulting in a major-league best 2.68 earned run average over the 29-game blitz.
“The combination of the two is why we’re playing like we are,” said first-year manager Ron Roenicke, whose club has 30 games remaining, including 18 at Miller Park, where they have the best home record (47-16) in the majors.
An offense that had underachieved as a whole during the first half started chipping in with more timely hits, a necessity in any prolonged stretch of winning. McGehee, who played so poorly in the first half that many fans were clamoring for him to be replaced, delivered many of those blows, beginning with that triple against Dempster.
The Brewers had won seven games in a row before dropping a tough, 8-7 decision to the Cardinals in 11 innings on Aug. 2 at Miller Park, a contentious affair in which all-star Ryan Braun was drilled with a pitch after reliever Takashi Saito plunked St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols.
But the Brewers bounced back in a big way the next day, pounding the Cards, 10-5, as McGehee enjoyed his first three-homer performance in the majors.
Six days later in St. Louis, the Cardinals rallied late to tie the Brewers, 3-3, only to have McGehee break through with an RBI double in the 10th inning to pave the way for a 5-3 triumph. An awful road team in the first half, the Brewers returned home from that Houston-St. Louis trip with a 5-1 record and a full head of steam.
“In the first half, people were saying we should get rid of Casey,” said rightfielder Corey Hart. “They were saying, ‘Bring up (Class AAA Nashville third baseman) Taylor Green. There’s a big difference between Triple-A and here. A big difference.
“Look at what he’s done in the second half.”
The pitching staff took charge of a seven-game home stand against the Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers, allowing a total of five runs as the Brewers won the first six. The offense struggled for the most part, resulting in a five-game stretch in which the Brewers won by scores of 1-0, 2-1 (10 innings), 3-0, 2-1 and 3-1.
It was the first time in franchise history that the Brewers held opponents to one run or fewer over five consecutive games.
“The pitching has been awesome, no question,” said McGehee. “There were days when the pitching staff had to win it for us.
“But the offense has picked up the slack more often of late.”
One of those days came last Saturday at New York’s Citi Field, when the Brewers had a seemingly safe 7-1 lead over the Mets after six innings. The home team took advantage of a rare pitching hiccup by the Brewers, however, scoring eight unanswered runs and roaring into the ninth inning with momentum on its side.
Undaunted, the Brewers rallied for four runs, with McGehee’s two-run single providing the winning margin. The visitors went on to sweep the Mets, continuing to shed their earlier reputation as road kill.
“Instead of having the trend bend back the other way, we come back and win that game, and it’s like ‘Wow, we won another one,’ “ said Roenicke. “Things start sliding sometimes and it’s tough to stop it, but we’re not allowing ourselves to even start to slide.”
Nor are the Brewers taking the postseason for granted. Many of the players were on the 2007 team that held an 8½-game lead over the Chicago Cubs on June 23 only to see the entire cushion melt away by Aug. 1. The Brewers finished second, two games behind the Cubs.
The players also remember the two-week collapse in September 2008 that frittered away a five-game lead in the wild-card race and unthinkably cost manager Ned Yost his job. The Brewers were forced to win on the final day of the season, then wait out a Florida victory over the Mets merely to get into the playoffs for the first time in 26 years.
“A lot of us have been on the other side of it,” said Hart. “We realize how fast it can go the other way. You’ve got to stay focused.
“We still have the daily focus, but we’re also having the most fun we’ve ever had. We keep pushing each other. It’s a ‘heated’ competition in here, but it’s also fun. It’s contagious. Everybody’s cheering in the dugout.”
Much has been made of the zaniness of this bunch, well-chronicled in the cover story of this week’s Sports Illustrated. Nyjer Morgan, aka Tony Plush, certainly is one of a kind, with a child-like quality that has captivated fans and teammates alike. But he’s also batting .313, the second-highest average on the club.
Players make “beast mode” gestures on the bases, a tribute to their kids’ love of the movie “Monsters Inc.,” as well as their affection for each other. Members of the bullpen have taken ritual handshakes to a flamboyant level. Practicing long golf putts in the clubhouse in the nude has been known to happen with only teammates as witnesses.
But this is not a carnival act. Built on pitching and the MVP-caliber seasons of Prince Fielder and Braun, this is a talented bunch headed for the playoffs without buying into the notion that outward signs of enjoyment should be legislated from major-league baseball.
“I go back to that (Saturday) game in New York,” said McGehee. “There were so many opportunities to just hit the cruise control and figure we’ll go get them tomorrow. For us to come back and win that game was a huge statement of what this team is all about.
“Despite all the antics that people talk about, that showed what this team is all about and how hard this team plays. We do a good job of separating all the shenanigans from the work and being serious about what we’re doing. That was the epitome of what this team is all about.”