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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tank's Half-Full, But Can It Last the Trip?

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Anyone who thought in April that the Brewers would cruise to the playoffs isn't thinking it now. The team hit the All-Star break, with 70 games remaining, tied with St. Louis for first place in the National League Central and sporting a terrific home record of 33-14. But the Brewers are tied with Houston for the worst road record in the league (16-29), and every win in last week's 4-3 homestand was achingly tough.

Two decisions over Cincinnati required ninth-inning rallies, including the 4-3 thriller Sunday. After Frank got back from Miller Park, the Observers went into mid-season analysis mode.


Frank:
After about 3 gallons of water I think I'm rehydrated from that open-roofed sauna.

Artie:
Good thing your seats are in the shade, at least. And good thing the Brew Crew dodged what would have been a really deflating loss. The defense has been a liability all season, and until the ninth it looked like Rickie Weeks' bad throw would be the difference.

Frank:
Instead the difference, for the second time in three days, was a meltdown by our old pal Francisco "Sorry, Milwaukee, I Want More Money" Cordero. Just like Friday night, George Kottaras worked a crucial walk and Nyjer Morgan and Mark Kotsay got key hits.

Artie:
It was the third time in the last five wins that the Crew got the job done in the ninth. I don't recommend it for controlling my blood pressure!

Frank:
Throw in the win over Arizona, with Casey McGehee's dramatic pinch-hit homer, and that made four wins of the inspirational, "team of destiny" variety. But twice the Brewers lost the next day, and after the break they have to start a brutal 11-game trek through Colorado, Arizona and San Francisco. As they say, "Momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher."

Artie:
Maybe so, but these comebacks can only make them confident they can do it on any given night. These guys will keep battling, you betcha. And remember, they played the last week without Ryan Braun.

Frank:
True enough. But even with Braun, that amazing disparity between home and road records was there. Because of it, they're on a pace to finish with 86 wins, and would that win the division?

Artie:
It better, because I don't think they can catch Atlanta for the wild-card spot. And that defense, boy, it's gonna hurt. The official scorer eventually changed a call to give Mat Gamel an error Friday night, which cost them two runs...

Frank:
Absolutely an "E," as we said in the press box at the time.

Artie:
Well, poor Gamel doesn't want to be at third anyway. He said he much prefers playing first, where they've been grooming him to succeed Prince Fielder. But it showed how desperately they needed hitting in the No. 5 spot with McGehee falling off badly.

Frank:
Alas, Gamel didn't provide that hitting, so he was back in Nashville on Sunday. But if Braun isn't recovered from his calf injury after the break, Gamel might be right back up.

Artie:
The Brewers rank 12th out of 16 N.L. teams in fielding percentage, but that stat is so inadequate to measure the defense. There have been lots of plays that aren't ruled errors but just aren't fundamentally good.

Frank:
As the chart on this page shows, the big change this year is the pitching. Their N.L. rankings in all the key categories were dismal the last two years, but now the marks for opponents' batting average and WHIP—walks and hits per inning—are quite good. They've allowed the third-fewest walks and are third in strikeouts, too.

Artie:
Thank you, Zack Greinke, and your 6-to-1 ratio of Ks to walks.

Frank:
The team ERA was doing fine, too, until it spiked in recent weeks.

Artie:
Thank you, schedule makers, for that interleague stretch against Boston, Tampa Bay and the Yankees.

Frank:
The pitchers also are giving up too many homers. As for the Brewers' hitting, they still rank well in the scoring and power categories, and while they're not drawing enough walks, their on-base percentage is pretty high for the league.

Artie:
But the lineup is still way too top-heavy. Except that last year it was 6 through 8 in the batting order that failed them, and now it's 5 through 8, unless McGehee can come around or a different Gamel returns. And I don't want to think about an extended time without Braun.

Frank:
The schedule makers did the Brewers no favor in sending them on the road for the first 11 games after the break.

Artie:
First those A.L. East matchups, which wound up 2-7. And now this marathon—just ridiculous. Can't we get San Diego to replace one of these series?

Frank:
Under the circumstances, a 7-4 or 6-5 trip would be phenomenal, and even 5-6 would set the Brewers up for their customary surge at home against the Cubs and Astros before St. Louis is here the first three days of August.

Artie:
Out of nowhere there's a challenge from the Pirates, who've had something like 10 guys on the disabled list but have pitched themselves into the division race. The Crew has owned them the last couple of years, especially at Miller Park, but when they arrive in mid-August things might not be so easy.

Frank:
The Brewers have 10 games left with Pittsburgh, six at home, and 12 with the Cardinals, evenly split.

Artie:
But before all that, this first trip is huge. Not do-or-die, but if they go 2-9 or 3-8 and fall a few games behind... Let's just say I'll be thrilled with 5-6.

Frank:
So at the halfway-plus point you see the glass as half-full. But no predictions, just watchful waiting, right?

Artie:
Absolutely. If the McGehee of 2010 emerged from the break, that sure would help move me off the watchful waiting.

Another Mr. 3,000

Frank: My master plan for Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit was off by nine days. I was hoping he'd reach the milestone against the Brewers in the Bronx, so I could have seen it.

Artie:
Tough luck, but Jeter sure got the mark in style—with a home run, on a 5-for-5 day, and driving in the winning run with No. 3,003. Pretty amazing, even to a Yankee hater.

Frank:
As such a person, how do you feel about Jeter himself?

Artie:
I know he's a god to you and your brethren, but he's never stirred me up much. He just kind of leaves me cold—not as a player, as a personality.

Frank:
That's partly by design, I think. He's always been kind of bland in the media sense—never trying to rock the boat, say anything provocative. It's all about the team, all about winning, all about the daily striving for consistency. Sounds like another 3,000-hit man who used to play in Milwaukee, huh?

Artie:
But I think Robin Yount was more expressive about the joy of playing. With Jeter, to me, it almost comes off as smugness.

Frank:
Hmm, Jeter has looked pretty joyful five times after the final out of a World Series.

Artie:
Yeah, yeah, the Yankee fan's rebuttal in any debate. Really, I have tremendous respect for him as a player. But I'd still draft Honus Wagner ahead of him. Better defense.

Frank:
How do you know what Honus Wagner's defense was like?

Artie:
Well, let's have them switch gloves and see how Jeter does with Wagner's tiny mitten.

Frank:
Even as Jeter approached No. 3,000 he was getting flak for allegedly being over the hill. I thought he deserved more of a "honeymoon" despite a sub-par 2010. First the Yankee ownership questioned his value before re-signing him. And during the Yankee-Brewer series, the media talk was that after No. 3,000 he should immediately be dropped from the leadoff spot.

Artie:
That's New York, ain'a? What have you done for us lately?

Frank:
Maybe 5 for 5 and a dinger for the ages will earn him a few days' peace.

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