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August 23, 2011

On the Beat

Boom Times Back for the Brewers

by John Perrotto

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The merits of team chemistry might be debated from this moment until the end of time without anyone coming up with a real answer.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke understands that, and so do his players. They’ve also heard the age-old question in sports about whether winning produces good team chemistry or vice versa.

However, one thing the hottest team in baseball will not question right now is the fact that there is good chemistry, ahem, brewing in their clubhouse. Even a visitor doesn’t have to be around the Brewers very long to sense something special that has sparked them to 23 wins in their last 27 games, giving them a nine-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central, the largest advantage of any leader in the major leagues' six divisions.

"We've got a really unique situation here," third baseman Casey McGehee said. "We have so many huge personalities that you would think it shouldn't work, but everybody just gets along great, both on and off the field. Usually, you'll see certain groups hanging out on a team. Here, everyone hangs out together. It's almost bizarre how it works for us. You have all these guys with different personalities, but nobody is looking for attention, nobody is looking to be in the headlines. Everybody works together for the good of the team."

It may sound corny for a player to say that. However, McGehee says it with complete sincerity, and Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder confirms it.

"We're a team," Fielder said. "That's the best way I can describe us. We're a team in the true sense of the word. Everyone is in this together."

Roenicke has seen the team unity grow as the season has progressed. He also believes it has played a large part in the Brewers breaking the division race wide open and putting themselves on a path to return to the playoffs for the second time in four years after going 26 seasons between postseason berths.

"They like each other, they love the competition between each other, and they love stirring it up as far as bantering back and forth with each other and things like that," Roenicke said. "They're really enjoying the good baseball that they're playing, and all those things have tied up with what I thought was a really good feeling on this club coming out of spring training, and it's only gotten better."

Of course, it always helps to have good players performing well, and the Brewers have plenty of those. Going into Monday night's doubleheader against the Pirates at Pittsburgh, the Brewers had posted a 2.45 ERA in their previous 33 games, allowing three or fewer runs 24 times and two runs or fewer 19 times.

The Brewers are sixth in the league and 10th in the majors in runs allowed with an average of 4.04 a game. Zack Greinke (2.92 FIP) and Shaun Marcum (3.59), their key off-season acquisitions, combine with Yovani Gallardo (3.55) to give the Brewers what should be a very strong threesome for the postseason, while one of two lefties Chris Narveson (3.77) and Randy Wolf (4.16) would be a solid No. 4 starter in a seven-game series.

"We've gotten good pitching, for the most, all year long, and it's really been great here in the last month," Roenicke said. "Anytime you pitch well, you're giving yourself a chance to win every game."

Closer John Axford (2.35) has proven to be more than a one-year wonder with a fine sophomore season. Francisco Rodriguez (2.55 in 17 1/3 innings) has performed well in the eighth-inning role since being acquired from the Mets in a trade on the night of the All-Star Game, while LaTroy Hawkins (2.88) and Kameron Loe (3.16) have also sparkled in set-up roles.

"People always talk about teams with good bullpens being able to make it a six-inning game," McGehee said. "Our bullpen is so deep that we can make it a four-inning game if we have to. We have so much depth there that we have some very talented pitchers who are hardly getting used because the starters have been covering so many innings."

The Brewers haven't done a whole lot of winning in the franchise's 42-year history. However, when they have, hitting has usually been at the forefront.

Yet the Brewers' offense is just middle-of-the-road this year, standing seventh in the league and 12th in the majors in scoring with an average of 4.42 runs a game even with MVP-type seasons from right fielder Ryan Braun (.340 TAv) and Fielder (.328). The Brewers have gone on their recent hot spell despite missing catalyst Rickie Weeks (.286) at the top of the lineup because of a severely sprained ankle. The Brewers are hoping to get Weeks back in September.

"Offensively, I don't think there has been a full period of time all year where we've been as good as we can be," Roenicke said. "Consistency-wise, we can still be better. We've been good, though, and we've put runs up and seemed to be able to get that big hit late in the game when we need it."

The Brewers got off to a poor start this season and dropped to 5 1/2 games out in the NL Central after falling to 14-20 on May 8. However, they have gone 32-11 since July 6 for the best record in the major leagues in that span and have built their substantial lead in the division in a relatively short amount of time, as they were in second place by half a game on July 26.

"It's just been a situation where we feel that we can't be beat," center fielder Nyjer Morgan said. "We're playing with so much confidence. We're just taking each day as it comes, and we take the field knowing we're going to win."

Seemingly the only danger surrounding the Brewers would be getting complacent with a big lead. However, Roenicke doesn't expect his team to slow down in pursuit of its first division title since winning the American League East in 1982.

"We've all seen how quickly things can change for the good," Roenicke said. "So we know how quickly things can go the other way. We're definitely not taking anything for granted."

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Rumors and Rumblings:

A few thoughts on fired Cubs general manager Jim Hendry: 1. He showed an incredible amount of class by staying on the job for nearly another month after being told by owner Tom Ricketts that he was going to be fired. 2. No GM was more friendly or accessible to reporters, and I'm going to miss chatting with him. 3. He is probably too nice to be a GM, as one of his faults was being too optimistic, such as when he believed that he and Lou Piniella could reform such incorrigibles as Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano. 4. Manager Mike Quade has just about zero chance of returning next season… Many in Chicago baseball circles believe White Sox VP and assistant GM Rick Hahn would be the perfect replacement for Hendry, and he has an out clause in his contract that allows him to join the Cubs, the team he grew up rooting for in suburban Chicago. "Rick Hahn is, to me, one of the most qualified men to assume the position moving forward," White Sox GM Ken Williams said. "What Mr. Ricketts does is his own business. He's a guy who has had a lot of success in business and in his world, and his world over there is none of my business, but if he called for a recommendation on Rick Hahn, I absolutely would give him my highest."

Reds left-hander Dontrelle Willis has gone from battling to overcome Steve Blass Disease last year to pitching to a 3.67 FIP in 45 2/3 innings since being called up from Triple-A Louisville. Yet the two-time All-Star has his comeback firmly in perspective: "With all the things I went through, it's nothing compared to our troops over there in Iraq or guys who came home paralyzed from the waist down. I was just playing bad baseball, but I have friends fighting over there, and what they are doing is a hundred times more important than what I'm doing. Riding on a bus in Louisville is still a lot better than most people have it."… Another reason why the Brewers have built a big lead in the NL Central: they are 38-19 inside the division, while the Cardinals are 29-28… There are those around the Phillies who worry that left-hander Cole Hamels' bout of rotator cuff inflammation might be more serious than it sounds, as it is a similar ailment that caused reliever Brad Lidge to miss the first four months of the season… Rockies right-hander Juan Nicasio is not only recovering well from the broken neck he suffered when struck by a line drive off the bat of Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond but is hopeful that he can pitch in the Arizona Instructional League next month.

Rangers manager Ron Washington says super utility man Michael Young should be a leading candidate to win American League MVP honors, which is ironic since he was nearly traded to both the Rockies and the Royals in the offseason… The Nationals plan to give first baseman Michael Morse extensive playing time in left field in September, as he figures to be the starter there next season when first baseman Adam LaRoche is expected to return after missing most of this season following shoulder surgery… The Twins are willing to trade designated hitter Jim Thome to a contender in an attempt to give the respected veteran a chance to win his first World Series ring. He lost in the Fall Classic with the Indians in 1995 and 1997… Yankees manager Joe Girardi says his top priority is to beat out the Red Sox for the AL East title and home-field advantage in the ALDS and ALCS, as opposed to last year when he was trying to keep his club healthy for the postseason… Tigers outfielder Magglio Ordonez, no longer a starter following the acquisition of Delmon Young, is said to be leaning toward retiring at the end of the season… The Dodgers are so impressed with how catching prospect Tim Federowicz has performed at Triple-A Albuquerque since being acquired from the Red Sox in a three-way trade with the Mariners last month that they are considering giving him the majority of starts behind the plate next season and having a veteran No. 2 catcher serve as a mentor, perhaps re-signing Rod Barajas.

---

Scouts' views:

Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon: "He's still got something left. He's not one of the best players in the league anymore, but he's helped that team. He's a good fit for them. He wants to play in Tampa, and he enjoys the role of elder statesman. I bet they bring him back next year."

Indians right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez: "Now you're seeing why the Rockies were willing to move him. He has no command of his off-speed pitches, and his mechanics are a mess. This is going to be a long-term project for (pitching coach) Tim Belcher, and the Indians don't have the luxury of time with where they are in the standings right now."

Reds right-hander Mike Leake: "There are always going to be questions about his durability because he's so slightly built, but we're getting toward the end of August, and he still looks strong. He's never going to be a workhorse, but I think he's proving this year he can be a reliable mid-rotation starter."

White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy: “I realize he had major surgery last year on his lat, but he hits the wall after about 60 pitches. You can't have four-inning starters when you're hanging on for dear life in a pennant race. I think they would be best-served using him out of the bullpen for the rest of this year."

Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman: "He has had a great year from a power numbers standpoint, and he seems to almost get overlooked with that franchise now that they've signed Jayson Werth and drafted Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, but he's still a franchise player to me. He can hit, he's a Gold Glover, and he just handles himself like a seasoned and mature pro rather than someone who really is still a kid. I just love this guy."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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