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Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011

No Reason to Vacate the Confident Camp

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It is the Great Commandment of sports media in our state, invoked every summer once the guys in gold helmets start training camp: “Thou shalt cover the Packers to excess, lest a cough or hiccup go unnoticed.” The mandate is unconditional, but surely it will be followed with even greater devotion as a second straight Super Bowl championship beckons.

This page, however, will not go All-Packers. For one thing, the Observers have observed that there's a chance for a Milwaukee baseball season to run into October. Still, it doesn't hurt to mark the opening of camp...

Frank:
Not being a die-hard Packer backer, and being neither willing nor able to soak up every word of camp coverage, I need guidance. Some prominent names have disappeared from the roster—Mark Tauscher, Cullen Jenkins, Nick Barnett and Daryn Colledge, among others. How important is that?

Artie:
To me, there's been nothing unexpected and nothing major. Just about all the guys released—Tauscher, Barnett, Brady Poppinga, for instance—were relatively old and missed time last season with injuries. Justin Harrell was a No. 1 pick in 2007 but hardly ever played because he was hurt so often. Brandon Chillar was in their plans at linebacker and had a pretty big contract, but during the lockout he blew out a hamstring, and so he might not have played at all this season anyway. They saved a good chunk of money that would have been owed to Chillar and Barnett, so that helps them with the salary cap.

Frank:
What about the guys who've left through free agency? Jenkins is off to Philly and Colledge to Arizona.

Artie:
Plus Brandon Jackson, the third-down back, signed with Cleveland. But they held onto kicker Mason Crosby, fullback John Kuhn and receiver James Jones. Jenkins certainly helped on the defensive line, but they'll be OK there. So I don't see any earth-shaking losses.

Frank:
The offensive line will be OK without Colledge?

Artie:
Absolutely. Colledge was durable, but that's about it. The Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn wrote this about Nick McDonald possibly replacing Colledge: “He doesn't have a tough act to follow.” McGinn said Colledge was the unit's weak link for two years.

Frank:
And the D-line is in good shape—if not exactly svelte shape—with postseason star B.J. Raji and others?

Artie:
Mike Neal is back from a shoulder injury that ended his 2010 season early and probably can step into the Jenkins spot. He looked really good when he was on the field last year.

Frank:
How about the linebacking without Chillar, who you said was supposed to be in the mix?

Artie:
It does leave them a little short at the inside LB spots, especially since Barnett also was an inside guy. Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk are there, but the backups are young. But if there's one thing we learned last year, it's that Ted Thompson has a way of finding undrafted free agents who can contribute—guys like D-back Sam Shields and linebacker Frank Zombo, who had their moments in the playoff run.

Frank:
We've always said that staying healthy is all-important to a team's success, but in some ways the Packers amended that cliché last year. They were socked with a ton of early injuries but found enough guys to make the necessary adjustments. So maybe we should say that injuries can be devastating...

Artie:
Please, please stay vertical, Aaron Rodgers!

Frank:
But with the right replacements and a little luck a team can compensate.

Artie:
I'd prefer a season that doesn't test that axiom quite as much as last year!

Frank:
Let's see, the first exhibition game is Aug. 13, a week from Saturday. And the final one is Sept. 1, a Thursday, which will give them a full week to prepare for their Sept. 8 opener against New Orleans. I hope our readers will forgive us if we don't spend a lot of space on the Packers until it's time to play for real.

Artie:
It ain't like there won't be plenty of wordage elsewhere.

Taking Care of Business

Frank: The Brewers' double sweeps of the Cubs and Astros, nice as they were, fall under the heading of “doing what they should.” Having seen three of the six games in person, I've gotta say those two teams richly deserve the last two spots in the N.L. Central.

Artie:
How'd you like to be on the Astros? You're going nowhere anyway and then you see two of your best players, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, traded away during the series. How depressing that must be! But we can't worry about that; gotta take advantage and pile up those wins, especially with the hated Cardinals visiting this week.

Frank:
The Cardinals and Pirates get their shots at the bottom-feeders, too. But the Cubs did the Brewers a favor Sunday night by winning in St. Louis.

Artie:
Which gave the Brew Crew a 2 1/2-game cushion over the Redbirds, with the Pirates 4 1/2 back after getting swept in Philly. But Pittsburgh gets the Cubs and the lowly Padres at home this week.

Frank:
Speaking of trades, Doug Melvin made a couple to tide the team over while Rickie Weeks recovers from his ankle injury. Felipe Lopez arrived Friday and Jerry Hairston Jr. a day later.

Artie:
I feel much better now. Craig Counsell and Josh Wilson weren't going to cut it, especially with Counsell mired in a horrendous slump—0-for-44 through Sunday. Lopez is a switch-hitter and his history is that he puts the bat on the ball, which he certainly did when he was brought in to replace Rickie in '09.

Frank:
Lopez and Hairston can play third, too, and Hairston can also go to the outfield.

Artie:
So there could be days when Lopez is at second and Hairston at third, or vice-versa, or Hairston's in center field against lefty pitchers. It's like Doug Melvin got four players to replace Rickie!

Frank:
Lopez hit .320 as a Brewer in '09, but in the last two years he fell off badly with St. Louis and Tampa Bay. And when he was last here there were times when his effort wasn't total.

Artie:
Yeah, I seem to recall a couple of nonchalant plays that drew some comment.

Frank:
I found some stuff on the Web. In mid-August of '09 Adam McCalvy of MLB.com wrote that Lopez “drew boos from the Miller Park crowd after dropping what should have been an inning-ending pop-up. Two days before that, he let two ground balls get by. A little more than a week before that, he failed to run hard to first base.”

Artie:
Hmm, not good, ain'a?

Frank:
Also, this year Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times wrote that Lopez had two incidents of not running hard to first when he was with the Rays. Not surprisingly, Joe Maddon soon had him shipped to the minors.

Artie:
Well, if he performs here, that's all that matters. And if he doesn't, now there's Hairston.

Frank:
The big story since the All-Star break is the team's pitching. Heading into the St. Louis series they had 19 “quality starts”—six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs—in 22 games. And the bullpen tandem of Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford is doing just what they hoped—although K-Rod failed to hold a lead Sunday, wild-pitching a run in. He also showed a flaw that could prove really costly sometime; runners can steal on him at will.

Artie:
The pitching better hold up, the way the offense has sputtered at times. For the entire season, the Brewers' run differential was only plus-5 after Sunday's game—462 allowed, 467 scored.

Frank:
A reflection of that 21-35 road record, which includes 10 shutouts.

Artie:
For a team expected to have a big-time offense, they've played a ton of one-run games.

Frank:
With the same disparity of home and road results. In one-run games at home they were 17-4 through Sunday; on the road it's 7-10.

Artie:
If they weren't getting this kind of pitching, things might not seem so rosy.

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