Brewers miss great chance to reward fans
MILWAUKEE -- The search for a team good enough to deserve the remarkable loyalty of Wisconsin's baseball fans continues.
The 2011 Milwaukee Brewers came closer to that goal than any team in the last 29 seasons. But at the end, they bowed to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series. After an atypical but one-sided 12-6 loss in Game 6 Sunday night, this could not be termed as any sort of glorious or gallant defeat.
This was a team that was structured to win this year, right now, immediately, before the likely departure of Prince Fielder in free agency. It made marked improvements, winning a franchise-record 96 regular-season games, winning a division for the first time in 29 years, winning a postseason series for the first time in 29 years.
This was a good ballclub, an entertaining ballclub, a ballclub with three players voted as National League All-Star starters, a ballclub with dramatically improved starting pitching over the course of the regular season.
But when the smallest media market in Major League Baseball draws 3 million people three times in four seasons, that kind of devotion needs to be repaid by something better than improvement. It probably deserves nothing less than a World Series championship. But in the interests of upper Midwestern fair play and reasonableness, let's say that a National League pennant would settle the score.
People here threw a public party for the last pennant winners, the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, even though that team lost the World Series in seven games to the Cardinals. That team had four future Hall of Famers on it. But part of its attraction was coming back from a 2-0 deficit to win the AL Championship Series, at a time when the ALCS format was best-of-five.
The current Brew Crew could not summon up those sorts of Championship Series heroics. In the last two games of the NLCS, Milwaukee had a collapse of both its pitching and defense, giving up 19 runs, while committing seven errors.
The Brewers traded considerable young talent to obtain two starting pitchers who could dramatically improve the nature of their rotation. Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum served that purpose very well. But they were of very little assistance in the postseason.
Greinke was 1-1 in three postseason starts, but his ERA was 6.48. That wasn't good, but it was Cy Young stuff compared to Marcum, who had a 14.89 ERA in his three postseason starts. One of Milwaukee's most consistent starters through the first five months of the season, Marcum slumped badly down the stretch and into the postseason.
Rather than starting him in the crucial Game 6, the Brewers probably should have filed a missing person's report on him. The decision to start Marcum in this elimination game may be second-guessed endlessly, but it was just one of too many problems the Brew Crew had in this final game.
The season, relative to many baseball seasons in Milwaukee, was successful.
"Your goal is to win your division," manager Ron Roenicke said. "You're playing 162 games to get into the playoffs; that's what your goal is. And we reached that goal. We reached another goal when we got past the first round.
"We didn't reach the ultimate goal, which is to get to the World Series. We fell two games shy of that. I'm happy with our season. I'm happy with a bunch of guys. I was certainly blessed to be able to manage not just a great team, but a great bunch of young men."
But the season, relative to the lofty but not unreasonable goals attached to this team, was not a complete success, because the World Series was still two victories away.
What next? The baseball acumen of general manager Doug Melvin and his crew is undisputed. The organizational strength is in place. Roenicke had a fine rookie season as manager, creating a positive environment for his team, managing an aggressive, intelligent style of play.
The Brewers will move into the future with all five starting pitchers returning. The NL's best closer in 2011, John Axford, will be back and so will a core of still relatively young talent, including Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Jonathan Lucroy. Nyjer Morgan and his entertainment value could be back. Carlos Gomez could be ready to play up to his talent level. Milwaukee will need a shortstop, just as it did all this season.
The Fielder situation presents a dilemma with what amounts to no correct solution for a small-market team. If Fielder leaves for a bigger payday than the Brewers can afford, the team takes an obvious hit. If Milwaukee somehow come up with an offer that suits the always-ambitious demands of Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, the club would probably be left without enough money to attract the kind of pitching that could keep the Brewers contending in the future.
People here expect Fielder to leave. On the occasion of what was probably his last at-bat in a Brewers uniform, in the eighth inning of Game 6, Fielder received a prolonged standing ovation. It was a reflection of the local appreciation of his effort, as well as the local generosity of spirit.
One inning earlier, the Miller Park fans had given a standing ovation to Craig Counsell, veteran infielder and native of Milwaukee, appearing in a pinch-hit role. This was another indication of how deeply the game is felt here. Counsell had his best seasons and two World Series championships elsewhere, but these people knew what he meant to this team, to the game itself and to them.
That kind of baseball following -- the understanding, the appreciation, the loyalty -- ought to be rewarded with a league championship. Nice try by the 2011 Brewers, but after 29 years, the Wisconsin baseball public is still waiting.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.