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Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011

Ah, the Plush Atmosphere of First Place

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No one listens to NPR for sports coverage, except for the real national pastime of political blame-flinging. But even NPR should have known better last weekend when a news anchor consulted an alleged expert to briefly talk baseball. Looking to the postseason, the anchor cited the East Coast "superteams" and asked if the only question was whether the Yankees or Red Sox would face Philadelphia in the World Series. That's about right, the other guy said.

Say what, NPR? A team right here has had pitching just as good as the Phillies' for several weeks and made a joke of the National League Central race. When Philly visits Miller Park for four games starting next Thursday, it could be more than an N.L. Championship Series preview. It could be a wakeup call for some national media—even NPR.


Frank
: When we last discussed the Brewers they were six games ahead of St. Louis with 40 to play. As we talk now, they're 10 and a half games up with 27 left. I know Yogi Berra would warn against it, but is there any way this isn't over?

Artie
: If it ain't now, it sure will be by Friday, after the Brew Crew wins another series over the Redbirds. I can't wait to hear the greeting Tony La Russa gets, and the excuses he uses when his team falls flat again.

Frank
: On the morning of July 25 the Brewers were 54-49 and trailed both St. Louis and Pittsburgh by percentage points. Over the next five weeks Milwaukee went 27-5 while the Cards were a paltry 17-16 and the Pirates... well, they looked at their shirts and said, "Gee, we can't really be contenders," and fell off the division map.

Artie
: It's too bad, sort of. I always like it when a team comes out of nowhere, like Tampa Bay in '08 or the Indians this year. But the Pirates' pitching didn't hold up.

Frank
: For a while people looking for a flaw in the Brewers' surge might have noted it was almost entirely against teams with losing records—Houston, the Cubs, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and the Mets. The only winning team they played—and mostly beat—was St. Louis.

Artie
: True, but the Cardinals were playing almost all of those teams, too. How come Tony the Brilliant and his guys weren't stomping them too? Good teams are supposed to beat weaker ones.

Frank
: St. Louis got swept by the Dodgers last week, with the last two games being a combined 22-6. A week earlier at Miller Park, the Dodgers managed only seven runs in four games.

Artie
: And the Brewers scored just nine times but won three of four. That's the difference in the Central: The Cardinals don't have good pitching and the Brewers have WAY better than good, like an ERA well under 3.00 since late July. And now the offense is coming around again—witness that big comeback in an 11-9 win over the Mets.

Frank
: Corey Hart had a torrid weekend. And I don't know if the local media are afraid of jinxing Ryan Braun, but no one's mentioning that he's got a great shot at the N.L. batting crown.

Artie
: Plus the horror shows on the road have ended. On the last trip they were 5-2 in New York and Pittsburgh.

Frank
: When they lost the first two games in Colorado after the All-Star break they fell to 16-31 on the road. Since then they're 15-7 away from Miller Park, almost .700 baseball. And why? Their road ERA has come down more than a run per game.

Artie
: And they still haven't come back to Earth at home. The weekend sweep of the Cubs made them 50-16 here, several games ahead of even the almighty Phillies' home record.

Frank
: That's why I was shocked to hear that guy on NPR hand the N.L. pennant to Philly.

Artie
: Now we know why there's no such thing as "NPR Sports."

Frank
: My mailman was upset when the Journal Sentinel began listing the "magic number" to clinch the Central. "Doing that in August scares me," he said.

Artie
: And now he has the Sports Illustrated cover "jinx" to worry about.

Frank
: But when he expressed his fear the magic number was, I think, 27. After Sunday's games it was 18 with only 27 to play.

Artie
: There's no reason to be cautious. These Cardinals are not the 1982 Orioles, who put on a surge to take the Brewers to the last day in the A.L. East race. That was one heck of a Baltimore team.

Frank
: As they showed in '83 by going all the way. Another thought I had was, OK, the Brewers have been playing so-so teams or worse, but really, how many N.L. teams aren't that way?

Artie
: Entering this week, seven of the 16 N.L. teams were above .500, and Cincinnati was just barely there.

Frank
: It's not to say the league is terribly weak. The teams that are good are really good.

Artie
: Which is why it will be so interesting when the Phillies come to town, ain'a?

Frank
: Speaking of the SI cover, the story devotes a lot of space to Tony Plush, aka Nyjer Morgan. I think it somewhat overestimates his impact on the season...

Artie
: That's your 24/7 media. They've got to have something to write about, and he's the most colorful thing about this team.

Frank
: Yes, that clubhouse had been pretty quiet, but that's been true of the Brewers ever since the scruffy days of Pete Vuckovich and Gorman Thomas ended in the '80s. Robin Yount and Paul Molitor and Jim Gantner were quiet, "lead by example" guys.

Artie
: And that seems to be pretty true of Prince Fielder and Braun, despite their fake "boxing" after homers.

Frank
: But quiet doesn't mean uptight. From covering a few games for the Journal Sentinel this year I've observed Morgan's energy, but even without that the clubhouse is nice and loose. The guys all seem to get along; there are lots of their kids around before and after games.

Artie
: And I think another factor is Ron Roenicke.

Frank
: True. There's a difference in the communication style, from Ken Macha's "they know my door is always open" to Roenicke's active consultation with the players. He seems to go out of his way to explain himself to his guys, like the Journal Sentinel's report of his discussions with Braun and Fielder about when he wants Braun to steal when Fielder's at bat.

Artie
: You get a sense of the good vibes in the interviews—post-game, of course, when a guy with a walk-off hit gets the shaving-cream pie in the face. But there was a game when the pitching coach, Rick Kranitz, was doing one of those in-game jobbies with the TV guys on a really hot night. There was a fan going in the dugout—the whirling kind of fan—and Yovani Gallardo was tossing sunflower seeds into it and spraying Kranitz.

Frank
: It's Morgan, it's Roenicke, and of course it's winning.

Artie
: That's the way it's supposed to be.

Frank
: If Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke had been here last year, maybe Macha wouldn't have been seen as quite as much of a wet blanket.

Artie
: Maybe just damp.

Frank
: Back to Morgan/Plush. I don't want to be a wet blanket myself. All the fans love him, Tony Plush T-shirts are a big hit at stadium shops, everything's great because, well, everything's great on the field. But if they were to hit a downturn, there's a chance Nyjer could do something detrimental to the team. I described him in print as "exciting and excitable," and he got into some on-field conflicts last year with Washington. He doesn't hide his emotions, good and bad, and the Plush craze ain't likely to tone him down.

Artie
: He provides that kind of energy, and I find it refreshing.

Frank
: Doug Melvin said he brings silliness back to the game, and we can all use a dose of silliness.

Artie
: Exactly why we're here.