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Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011

Bring On the... the... Heck, Bring 'Em All

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There's no law that Wisconsin has room for only one Titletown. Green Bay claimed the name in the Packers' glorious 1960s and it certainly fits again. Madison is home to the defending co-champions of Big Ten football and perhaps, in a few months, the national kings. And now, for the first time in 29 years, the Brewers own a division title. But who says they can't grab more? Not the Observers.

Artie
: I'm still flying high from watching that absolutely fabulous Friday night at Miller Park.

Frank
: I can tell you it sure was fun to be there.

Artie
: I know you Yankee fans probably think, "Division, schmivision," but for some of us in the Heartland it's a mighty big deal.

Frank
: Ryan Braun's eighth-inning at-bat was, to say the least, stirring. With "MVP! MVP!" rocking the stadium, he did just what he did in the regular-season finale three years ago—blast a homer to clinch a postseason spot.

Artie
: And this time he wrapped up that MVP vote, ain'a?

Frank
: The 32 voters are writers from all the National League cities. And Friday night ESPN showed them two Braun highlights: the homer and the terrific diving catch and double-play throw.

Artie
: Sometimes I've thought Braun was less than focused in left field, but obviously he has the skills.

Frank
: And look at his overall offense this year. As we talk, he's leading the league in both batting and slugging percentage, he's right up there in runs, hits, homers and RBI, and he has more than 30 stolen bases.

Artie
: There's more, though. It's a cliché, but he's definitely a money player. He accepts the big moment, really wants to be up then.

Frank
: That's reflected in his commitment to Milwaukee long-term. He wants to be the man, the face of the franchise.

Artie
: Which he certainly is right now. In just five seasons, he's become a very special player—like Robin Yount and Paul Molitor were for the American League Brewers, or Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews for the Braves here. Braun's right up there.

Frank
: Nothing against Prince Fielder, who's been terrific and a good guy. But Braun's been a more consistent star, and he'll be here a lot longer.

Artie
: But while Prince is still here, he could help make October really special.

Frank
: Our deadline prevents us from knowing whom or where the Brewers will be playing when the first round opens Saturday. They could face Atlanta, Arizona or even Philadelphia, and getting the home-field advantage depends on having a better record than the Diamondbacks.

Artie
: Home field would be really good to get, especially in the five-game opening series. After all, the Brew Crew entered this week with 55 home wins, the most in the majors. But as for who they play, who cares? They match up with anyone!

Frank
: Absolutely. All year long the Phillies have been idolized for their starting rotation, but the Brewers' pitching may be just as good. And the Phillies' hitting has been extremely spotty.

Artie
: It might actually be good to face Philly first because in a shorter series you'd probably only face one of their aces twice. As for the Braves, they were a lock for the wild card two weeks ago but now are staggering. Their bullpen got overworked and a couple of their starters got hurt.

Frank
: With Arizona, people see them so little that it's hard to know much, except that they've been surging.

Artie
: They have one outstanding starter in Ian Kennedy and a good bullpen. And they have the better of the Upton brothers in Justin. But they're certainly beatable.

Frank
: As are the Brewers, of course. Their weaknesses on defense and at the bottom of the batting order could prove costly. But everyone else has weaknesses too.

Artie
: Don't overthink it and go crazy trying to find little advantages. Leave it at this: The Crew can do it!

Frank
: To get the home field for the first round they might have to battle to the very end of Game 162.

Artie
: Just like the Braves and Cardinals for the wild card, and the same in the other league with Boston and Tampa Bay. It's been a fabulous baseball month!

Frank
: St. Louis finishes with the hapless Astros, who nevertheless would love to knock off Tony La Russa's guys.

Artie
: It'd be their only highlight. They could sell T-shirts: "Astros 2011: Year of La-Screw-Sa." But enough with the Cardinals. The division title is here! It was so great Friday night after the game to see the players on the field and the stands still filled, everyone watching the end of the Cardinals' loss. That's what sports can give you: a terrific event that isn't scripted.

Frank
: Thank you, Mr. Braun.

Artie
: Speaking of whom, I went to baseball-reference.com to check his stats and discovered that his nickname, according to the site, is "The Hebrew Hammer."

Frank
: I'd heard him called "The Hebrewer" on ESPN, but that's a new one to me.

Artie
: Some people might think it's derogatory, but why? It evokes the original "Hammer," Mr. Aaron, and Braun's heritage. Nothing "anti" there. He's another great Jewish player in the tradition of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

The Pack Soldiers On

Frank: I was at Miller Park as the Brewers finished off Florida, but I got home for the second half of Packers-Bears. Your assessment of the 27-17 win?

Artie
: Workmanlike, I'd say. But any win at Soldier Field is excellent.

Frank
: After three games my impressions are that on offense the Packers can do whatever they want, and on defense they may give up a lot of yards but they toughen up in the red zone—like yielding only three points after first-and-goal just before halftime. The classic "bend but don't break" mode.

Artie
: Jay Cutler got over 300 passing yards, but that's because the Bears had absolutely no running game, and all over the league the passing yardage is up. And remember, the Pack was playing its first game without Nick Collins, a key guy in the secondary, who's out for the season.

Frank
: One thing, though. Isn't anyone on a punt-coverage team supposed to look up in the air and see where the ball is heading? Late in the game Devin Hester deked almost everyone into running toward him while his teammate across the field caught the punt and went all the way.

Artie
: And in classic Bears style, they got called for a hold and lost the TD. It sure was nutty; even the TV camera went to Hester, and then suddenly it seemed Houdini had the ball.

Frank
: Of course they want to kick away from Hester, but wouldn't that involve everyone in green and gold knowing which angle the punt would take?

Artie
: That's Packers-Bears for you. There's always something weird, in the outcome or some play or two.

Frank
: Last year in the regular season at Soldier Field, the weirdness was in a whopping 18 penalties for Green Bay.

Artie
: For a while it looked like the Pack was trying to match that. But things calmed down in the second half and they finished with only seven.

Frank
: While the Bears seemed to be shooting for 18 flags in the second half alone. They wound up with 10 for the game.

Artie
: Well, so far, so good. With Denver coming to Lambeau Field this weekend, the Pack should be 4-0 and looking forward to watching the Brewers wrap up their first-round series sometime next week.

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