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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bye, Bye, Redbirds

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Sundays at the ballpark don't get much better in Milwaukee. The Brewers completed a sweep of St. Louis, grabbed first place in the National League Central division and gave fans good reasons to think they'll stay there. And it happened at a pace that got the Observers on the bus home in sprightly fashion.

Frank:
Well, you got two of your three wishes fulfilled today.

Artie:
A Brewers win and a crisp time of 2 hours 31 minutes. The only thing missing was a bench-clearing brawl.

Frank:
Don't forget the bonus of a Zack Greinke bobblehead.

Artie:
But have you looked at yours?

Frank:
Let's see... Wow, it doesn't look anything like Greinke! The face is much thinner.

Artie:
If I didn't see the name, I'd think it was someone from years ago that I forgot.

Frank:
I know you especially wanted a brawl because your favorite manager was here.

Artie:
Tony La Russa, field marshal of beanball wars and self-appointed judge of the unwritten rules of baseball.

Frank:
Well, he has managed more than 5,000 games.

Artie:
Big deal. Besides creating the 3-hour game with endless bullpen moves and presiding over steroid-filled clubhouses, what's he done? It would have been great to see him get punched.

Frank:
Remember, he's also suffering from shingles.

Artie:
OK, not punched, just tackled.

Frank:
The Brewers didn't stay tackled after falling behind 3-0. Their four-run explosion reminded me a little of another Sunday game revered in Brewers lore.

Artie:
Easter 1987, ain'a?

Frank:
Yup, the five-run miracle in the ninth inning that beat Texas in No. 12 of the 13-game winning streak to open the season. This time it was sixth-inning lightning, with four straight hits climaxed by Prince Fielder's no-doubt blast into the right-field loge.

Artie:
In some ways this win was bigger. Two months later in the season, a battle for first place with the perennial division power.

Frank:
Right now I don't think anyone doubts this team will be in the race all the way—and maybe run away with it.

Artie:
As always, the key is staying healthy.

Frank:
Everyone figured the offense would be there, and Fielder and Ryan Braun have made sure of it.

Artie:
The way Prince is hitting, his intro music should be the Barry McGuire oldie, “Eve of Destruction.”

Frank:
But the big key is the pitching. The last couple of years they were near the bottom of the league in every key category, but now they're sixth in ERA, fifth-best in hits allowed, second-best in walks allowed and third in strikeouts.

Artie:
Thank you, Zack Greinke, for that ranking in walks. In his first eight starts he walked just seven guys, compared to 60 strikeouts.

Frank:
Better than 8 to 1, strikeouts to walks, is unheard of. But Shaun Marcum has been no slouch, either. In beating the Cardinals he ran his numbers to 83 Ks and 23 walks.

Artie:
A couple of good moves Doug Melvin made in landing those guys.

Frank:
Marcum's seven-inning stint made the five Milwaukee starters 19-5 with a 3.42 ERA over a 34-game span. A far cry from the dark days of Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush and Braden Looper.

Artie:
Marcum is a master of changing speeds, and he had great location against St. Louis. Before the Cardinals scored he had his WHIP—walks and hits per inning—under 1.00!

Frank:
He struck out some guys by setting them up with “hard” stuff and changing up; he struck out others by doing the opposite. His 88-mile-an-hour fastball can look like 98 if the hitter's expecting off-speed.

Artie:
He's really out of that Greg Maddux mold.

Frank:
So who's gonna stop these guys in the division? Of course, I should note that in April of '87 I said there was no way the Brewers could lose the A.L. East.

Artie:
And by the All-Star break they'd had a 12-game losing streak and were at .500. But if there are no major injuries and the big hitters don't cool off drastically, this year looks mighty good.

Frank:
Total dominance Friday, a comeback Saturday and another in the finale. They only had four hits aside from the sixth inning, but Marcum, Kameron Loe and John Axford protected the lead. And there was a little luck when Colby Rasmus' ninth-inning drive found the deepest part of the park—and Carlos Gomez's glove in a nifty catch.

Artie:
Lucky or good, it all works for me. I wonder why La Russa didn't have a lefty ready to pitch to Prince in the sixth? Not that Prince can't hit lefties.

Frank:
He had a couple, but must not have trusted them.

Artie:
Or maybe the shingles in his eye made him think Jake Westbrook was a lefty.

Frank:
Again, no respect for the future Hall of Famer.

Artie:
If he wasn't such a prickly character I might ease up. But he is.

Subtraction of Divisions?

Frank: How about this idea that just popped up? ESPN says the talks on a new baseball labor agreement have raised the subject of limited realignment—two 15-team leagues with no divisions and five teams each in the playoffs.

Artie:
Sounds odd, but then divisions sounded odd to a lot of us purists 40-plus years ago.

Frank:
It's like what you've suggested in the NBA—ending divisions to guarantee that the teams with the best records in each conference make the postseason. In baseball, this would get two more teams into the playoffs without calling them “second wild cards.” It also would prevent a fluke like the '06 Cardinals, who were only the sixth-best N.L. team at 83-79 but won the division—and the World Series.

Artie:
Would the league schedules be balanced?

Frank:
With 15 in each league there'd have to be interleague games almost constantly. Houston probably would shift to the A.L. to battle with Texas. But I don't think they've gotten to possible scheduling yet.

Artie:
That system might hurt the in-league rivalries that already exist, like Dodgers-Giants, Yankees-Red Sox or Brewers-Cubs. If you decreased those games, the fans might not like it.

Frank:
If you're going to have one-third of your teams make the playoffs, I suppose it's good to make sure they'll have the best records. But if the purpose is to have more teams in contention down the stretch, you'll still have years when there isn't much.

Artie:
Right now there are two ways to qualify, and if you're out of contention for one you might have a shot at the other. But if the top five get in, where will the drama be for teams that are a lock for, say, one of the top three spots?

Frank:
Which is what happened last year in the A.L. East, when Tampa Bay and the Yankees had it made and neither seemed too excited about who took the division.

Artie:
It could come down to the only race being for the No. 5 spot.

Frank:
I looked back a few years to see who would have won the second wild cards. In most years those races would have involved a maximum of three teams, and in '05 the teams that would have been the second wild cards—Cleveland and Philadelphia—had five-game cushions. So there would have been virtually no suspense in the final week or longer.

Artie:
There's no foolproof way to guarantee spine-tingling races. And how'd the fans in Washington or Kansas City feel about being 15th, instead of fifth?

It Takes a True Team

Frank: I was so-o-o glad to see Dallas win the NBA title, especially after LeBron James and Dwyane Wade mocked Dirk Nowitzki's illness last week.

Artie:
That was so stupid. I'm surprised Wade went along with that. You don't need to give anyone extra motivation.

Frank:
It displayed the "we're so great” attitude that got so many people rooting against Miami all season.

Artie:
As if the Mavericks couldn't have done a mimic job of LeBron choking in the fourth quarter every game?

Frank:
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said his guys were "a true team" who "trusted the pass." It was great to see them win.