This year's Crew has right pieces for October
Milwaukee's 2011 squad more balanced, experienced than '08
PITTSBURGH -- It was a lovely story when the Milwaukee Brewers reached the postseason three years ago. But it was a short story.More like a pamphlet. That Brewers club jumped on CC Sabathia's back not every fifth day but every fourth, as an offense that hit just .227 in the September stretch needed every ounce out of its ace. "It felt like he threw every day," Prince Fielder said with a laugh. Manager Ned Yost was fired with two weeks left in the season after a well-proportioned National League Wild Card lead was wasted. The Wild Card was then reclaimed on the season's final day, ending an October drought that had frustrated a fan base for 26 years. With the burden of history lifted, a city celebrated, a franchise was rejuvenated and a bold Trade Deadline move was rewarded. One week later, it was over. The Brewers went four-and-out in the NL Division Series against the Phillies, and Sabathia pursued the pinstripes and the paychecks that came with them. In the two seasons that followed, the Brew Crew posted sub-.500 records and third-place finishes. The magic left Milwaukee. Here in 2011, it has returned. But this time, it doesn't have a fluky feel. The Brewers aren't just grabbing a division title -- their first since 1982 -- but strangling it by the neck. A month ago, they were a half-game back of both the Pirates and the Cardinals. Today, thanks to a ridiculous 25-5 run, they have a 10-game lead on the Cardinals for the largest division lead in all of baseball. The Brewers are, as this week's Sports Illustrated cover proclaims, "Living the High Life." But they're doing so not behind an oversized ace masking an insufficient supporting cast. This is a deeper, more balanced, more dynamic unit with more potential for a sustained October run. How do the 2008 and '11 installments of the Crew compare? "Not even close," right fielder Corey Hart said. "We had a lot of nervous energy on that '08 team. Now, we're all a little more mature. We were an exciting group back then, but the personality of this team is just better, all-around." So is the pitching. In the 2008 NLDS, Yovani Gallardo started Game 1, making just his fifth appearance of the season and his second following knee surgery. Sabathia started Game 2, marking his fourth consecutive start on three days' rest. Dave Bush, he of the middling 9-10 record and 4.18 ERA that season, pitched Game 3 and won. Jeff Suppan, who went 10-10 with a 4.96 ERA that year, was summoned for Game 4 and got hammered. Contrast that with the horses manager Ron Roenicke would have to run out there, should the Brewers lock down this division lead and advance. Zach Greinke's basketball blunder delayed his start to the season, but he's 5-2 with a 2.52 ERA in the second half. Shaun Marcum is 11-4 with a 3.38 ERA after a tough-luck loss to the Pirates on Wednesday. Gallardo is now a polished vet, having posted at least 13 wins in each of the last three seasons and currently carrying a 3.51 ERA. And as far as fourth starters go, it doesn't get much better than what veteran lefty Randy Wolf (10-8, 3.45) has provided this year. Roenicke was on the 1982 Dodgers team that erased a 10-game deficit in late July in the span of just 14 days, so he refuses to get ahead of himself and start talking about potential playoff alignments. But he can confirm that he has quite a bit of confidence in his starting staff. "I don't even know what the front-end is," he said, "because they're all good." And the rotation's dependability has been matched only by its durability. The Brew Crew has only had to call on a total of six starters all season, and those starters have logged the second-most innings in the NL this year. That's allowed the John Axford-led bullpen, which has been a key to this run, to gel. "The pitching is much deeper [than in 2008]," general manager Doug Melvin said. "The starters are all good enough to where I'm not sure you can say we have an ace. That's the good thing about this team. We're not looking for aces or MVPs." Oh, but they have the latter. Free-agent-to-be Prince Fielder (.298 average, .961 OPS, 28 homers, 100 RBIs) and Ryan Braun (.330, .985, 25, 85) are both worthy candidates. More importantly, they bring an element to October that few, if any, other NL clubs possess. "With no disrespect to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Chipper Jones, etc.," said a scout who follows the Brewers closely, "no one else in that league has Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, so they're better positioned than most to grab a run or two off even the best pitching." But how well will the Brewers' pitching stack up with the celebrated staffs of the Phillies, Braves or possibly the Giants when it matters most? That's the question the scout wrestles with. "The issue with their pitching is not the ability to dominate, but the reliability of their domination," the scout said. "They have guys who can pitch a shutout, but we've got no track record for those guys really showing up in big games. Not that they won't, we just haven't gotten a chance to see it, really. They're going to run out against likely two, possibly three teams with not only great pitchers, but pitchers that have track records of showing up big in big games." Before they can concern themselves with the big games, the Brewers have the maintenance of their division lead to attend to. This club was six games under .500 and 5 1/2 back on May 8 and a pedestrian 49-43 at the All-Star break. The lead and the momentum they've amassed in the past four weeks is nothing short of stunning, but they haven't let the excitement of their second-half surge get the best of them. "The excitement is going out there and winning all the time," Roenicke said. "When they come in here, that's still their focus, to just keep this up as long as we can. I don't think we feel like we're comfortable. I think we just feel like, 'Hey, this is right. Let's keep this going.'" Roenicke is a first-year skipper who inherited an ideal situation. With that inheritance, however, came enormous expectations, and he has borne the burden quite well. "A lot of times, first-year managers are put in rebuilding situations and it takes a few years," Melvin said. "But the situation for him was very challenging. The expectation was to do well and to win. That's more challenging than a rebuilding situation. He's been everything we had hoped for. You can just tell the energy level of everybody down there. They enjoy to win, and they enjoy the moment." And Roenicke lets them enjoy it. All clubhouses are comprised of diverse sets of characters, yet few mesh as well as this Crew has this year. From Nyjer Morgan's "Tony Plush" insanity to Greinke's keep-to-himself introspection and every step in-between, the Brewers have all the bases of the brain covered. That they get along and come together so well is either a product of or a cause of their success, depending on your perspective. "For guys to produce and to get the most out of them, they have to be comfortable with where they are, comfortable with what they're doing," Roenicke said. "I think my job is just to guide them in that direction. It's not to put the reins on, it's not to let them go, but it's to guide them to an area where they can thrive. It's my job to get the most out of those players." Milwaukee has certainly made the most of the Pirates' plummet and the mediocrity of the Cardinals and defending NL Central champion Reds, playing its best baseball as the rest of the division either stood pat or fell flat. Now, the NL Central is theirs to lose, an October assignment all but assured. And this story has the potential for a longer length -- and a happier ending -- than the one that was written in 2008.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.