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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rough Road From Start to Fermisht

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The great Gene Pitney sang it best in the '60s: “It hurts to be in love.” Especially, as any sports fan knows, when the object of devotion is a team that's struggling.

The Brewers, though battered and bruised, left town last week with a good shot at climbing back into contention in the National League Central. A winning homestand had followed an energizing four-game sweep in Los Angeles, and interleague success beckoned in Kansas City and Minnesota.


Then came disaster: three straight nights of great pitching for seven innings ruined by bullpen failure against the Royals. Even so, two wins in Minneapolis and a three-run lead in the seventh inning Sunday set up a counter-sweep. But somehow the Twins got to Zack Greinke, the Brewers' bats went quiet and the trip ended with an agonizing 15-inning loss.


So the team returned worse off in the standings and facing five straight series against tougher opponents. When the phone rang Sunday evening, one of the Observers was hurting bad.


Artie
: What a way to spend Father's Day! All that time wasted. The program that's supposed to be on FSN Wisconsin right now is bull riding, but all I've done all day is bull watching!

Frank
: Tough one to lose, to coin a phrase. The Brewers are having trouble closing out series this year; they're now 7-15 in final games, and 2-7 when those games have decided three-game series.

Artie
: How about these numbers, like 250 and 190, which is what my blood pressure feels like. If Rickie Weeks could even match those in his on-base and batting marks, the Crew might be a lot better off.

Frank
: Weeks left Minnesota having climbed to .311 on-base and hitting .177—about 40 and 70 points, respectively, below his career numbers. For the Brewers to make any sort of run, he has to get going. It's just baffling how he could be scuffling this long.

Artie
: It's got me all fermisht.

Frank
: How's that?

Artie
: Fermisht, accent on the misht, a nice Yiddish word meaning “muddled in the mind,” or, in the more modern Elvis translation, “all shook up.”

Frank
: So the Brewers wound up 6-6 against bottom-feeders in each league—Cubs and Padres, Royals and Twins. They left Minnesota six games under .500 and 8 ½ behind Cincinnati in the division.

Artie
: And even 4 ½ behind Pittsburgh! But a comfy three games ahead of the Astros.

Frank
: They don't face Houston again until just before the All-Star break. And first they have to play Toronto, the White Sox, Cincinnati, Arizona and Miami.

Artie
: By the time they get to Houston, my hopes may be buried.

Frank
: Remember, though, there are two wild cards now. And they left Minnesota just five games behind in that race.

Artie
: That's gotta be a typo; you sure it wasn't 50?

Frank
: Nope, five, but with eight teams ahead of them.

Artie
: Enough! I'm sick about how they wasted such great pitching in Kansas City. Zack Greinke, Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum should all have had Ws.

Frank
: They combined for a 1.66 ERA in that series. And over the four series with the Cubs, Padres, Royals and Twins, the rotation's ERA was 2.71. But the team just treaded water.

Artie
: That's not the kind of thing that will make Greinke want to re-sign after this season. What a time for John Axford to choke away two games in K.C.!

Frank
: This raises a huge issue these next five series might decide: Will the Brewers become “sellers” as the trading deadline approaches in late July? Marcum and Wolf aren't signed for 2013, either. And there's K-Rod, who'll draw interest as a closer even though he's been inconsistent in the eighth inning this year.

Artie
: Right now I'm thinking in terms of a .500 season at best, even if they get Jonathan Lucroy back from his broken hand relatively quickly.

Frank
: There's even a downside to Lucroy returning; Martin Maldonado has played well in his place.

Artie
: So do they count on coming back all healthy next year and try their hardest to re-sign Greinke and Marcum? Or do they go the “reverse Sabathia” route and ship them out for prospects?

Frank
: Greinke is probably “priced out” already, given Matt Cain's recent $127 million deal. And there's a new factor: The rules for free-agent compensation were changed in the new labor deal last winter. It'll be highly unlikely the Brewers will get draft choices for free agents that sign elsewhere, so getting prospects in a trade will look that much better.

Artie
: Last year they managed to upgrade the pitching and keep Prince Fielder, but at the price of a lot of talented youngsters. Now it's looking like 2011 was the one big chance to win it all, and it'll be a while before the stars align right again. I'm getting worried about who'll be filling out the rotation in '13. New versions of Dave Bush or Jeff Suppan? It gives me nightmares.

Frank
: Bush is still around, pitching at Triple-A in the Phillies organization. And hey, Suppan is a free agent again.

Artie
: I thought it was really crappy of San Diego to release Suppan before the Brewers could get another shot at him. How the hell could he have gone five scoreless innings out there in May? You know that song, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”? Well, that has me perplexed, confounded and fermisht.

Frank
: I think I see an Observers' official slogan emerging.

Point of Order

Artie: Getting back to Rickie's underachieving, I wonder if it's partly that he's fermisht about getting dropped from the leadoff spot to fifth or sixth in the order.

Frank
: Ron Roenicke could hardly have kept him at the top. He wasn't anywhere near what you want in a leadoff hitter.

Artie
: I guess not, but I think all the study and adjusting that goes into a batting order is over-science, not worth the effort. Except for the first inning, you can't control who comes up when.

Frank
: Of course you want your better hitters up high because it gives them a better chance for five at-bats instead of four, or whatever. You want to have a high on-base guy lead off, a good bat-control guy second, then the RBI guys. But you could easily have a game in which the top of the order is really the top of the order only in one inning.

Artie
: Sometimes I think a manager has no better idea of who should hit where than we do. Your cleanup guy could be leading off, or No. 7. So what's the strategy then?

Frank
: Like everything else in baseball, it only looks smart when it works—if the top of the order does what it's supposed to do at the start, for example.

Artie
: I wonder if there have been studies about how often your No. 1 or 2 guys will actually lead off an inning after the first? It's all a crapshoot!

Frank
: I couldn't find any big report like that on the Web. However, I did a little study, which has no scientific validity...

Artie
: That's our specialty. The more unscientific, the better our tea party readers will like it.

Frank
: I looked at the three home games against San Diego and the three using the DH in Kansas City. In those games the Brewers hit in a total of 54 innings, and here are the number of innings each lineup spot led off: First, 13; second, 6; third, 2; fourth, 7; fifth, 6; sixth, 7; seventh, 2; eighth, 6; ninth, 5.

Artie
: So the leadoff spot did lead off the most.

Frank
: About a quarter of the time. But take away the first innings, and the fourth or sixth hitters were just as likely to lead off as No. 1.

Artie
: And who's usually the No. 6 hitter these days? The guy you dropped from the leadoff spot, Mr. Weeks.

Frank
: He can drop, but he can't hide.

Artie
: What he's got to do is hit! The season's not getting any younger, and you can quote me on that.