September 29, 2008
Prospectus Hit and Run
A Strange but Memorable Brew
I don't know how many times I've seen the clip. Big Pete Ladd delivers to Rod Carew, who grounds to Robin Yount, who throws over to Cecil Cooper, who clutches the ball in his glove and raises his outstretched arm as he heads towards the dogpile on the mound where the Milwaukee Brewers celebrate their 1982 pennant. That final out has stood as the pinnacle of the Brewers' success for over a quarter of a century, a moment to savor for a franchise that has enjoyed more bad times than good in 40 seasons of existence across two cities and two leagues. It defined not only the success of a pennant captured, but the failure to top that with a World Championship, and the epic, playoff-free drought that the franchise endured during 25 years of frustration and occasional humiliation.
All of that changed on Sunday. The Brewers didn't capture a pennant on the final day of the 2008 season, didn't even capture a division crown, but the pairing of their come-from-behind victory over the Cubs with a loss by the Mets earned them the NL wild-card berth. Furthermore, it guaranteed that if nothing else, the next generation of Brewers fans will have a new highlight reel to etch into their collective unconscious, one featuring Ryan Braun's towering two-run eighth-inning homer and CC Sabathia's bear hug of Jason Kendall after sealing the victory by inducing Derrek Lee to ground into a game-ending 4-6-3 double play. A new chapter has been written in Milwaukee baseball, and it's about damn time.
I know that 1982 clip by heart, not only because I was one of many baseball fans across the country who climbed onto the bandwagon of Harvey's Wallbangers, but because I married into a family of Brewers fans, a long-suffering bunch for whom that now-ancient pennant remains a touchstone. From my first visit to Milwaukee in 2001, I became invested in the franchise's turnaround via a trip to the recently inaugurated Miller Park. My empathy and attention to the club's fate only increased as it became glaringly apparent that the latter-day Selig family's preferred style of management bordered on Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, and that the new ballpark was anything but the financial panacea that had been promised.
Things began to change with the Selig family's decision to sell the club, though to be fair, the two key hires of the rebuilding effort came prior to Mark Attanasio's purchase in September 2004. General manager Doug Melvin was hired by team president/CEO Ulice Payne in late 2002, and survived despite Payne getting it in the neck from the Wendy Selig-Prieb-led board of directors a year later. Scouting director Jack Zduriencik has been on the job since 2000, a testament to the Selig family's blind chicken-like ability to stumble over the occasional kernel of corn. Prior to Melvin's arrival, Zduriencik had already drafted such staples of the Milwaukee baseball renaissance as Corey Hart (11th round, 2000), J.J. Hardy (second round, 2001), and Prince Fielder (first round, 2002), and in the years after Melvin's arrival, they added Rickie Weeks (first round, 2003), Yovani Gallardo (second round, 2004) and Braun (first round, 2005).
The transition between the Selig and Attanasio regimes was symbolized by the evolution at first base, as the grim financial realities of Richie Sexson's departure turned into the holding pattern of the Lyle Overbay years, with the promise of Fielder's ascendance just on the horizon. I wanted nothing more for my in-laws and their fellow Brewer fans than for their team to take them back to that happy place they enjoyed in 1982. We commiserated as the team lost 388 games from 2001 to 2004, and shared in the small joys as they scraped .500 in 2005, and finally crossed that benchmark for the first time in 15 years in 2007. That last was a bittersweet consolation prize for the heartache of the team's near-miss of a playoff berth.
Heading into Sunday's game, the possibility that this season might end with yet another close-but-no-cigar resolution nearly wore a hole in my stomach, and the first six and a half innings of the game did little to change that. The Brewers had failed to get a hit through the first six frames against Ted Lilly in Saturday's loss, and following a leadoff single by Mike Cameron to start the finale, it was a similar story as the next 18 hitters went down in order. They did so against a collection of pitchers far inferior to Lilly; Cubs manager Lou Piniella chose to skip Carlos Zambrano and turn the game into a bullpen casting call, and among the parade of pitchers auditioning for his post-season roster were a few with unsightly ERAs and relatively little time in the majors this year. Angel Guzman, owner of a 7.04 ERA in just 7
Still, the game was as tight as the Brewer hitters thanks to the work of CC Sabathia, making his third start in a row on three days' rest. Relying on his changeup and cut fastball more than his heater, he generated numerous swings and misses, and began racking up the strikeouts his second time through the Cubs' order. Chicago had scored the game's lone run in the second inning thanks to some less-than-tidy work by the Brewer defense. Aramis Ramirez had led off with a single, and one out later might have been erased in an inning-ending double play had Micah Hoffpauir's grounder not gone through Fielder's wickets. Ronny Cedeno legged out another potential double-play grounder, safe on a close play that could have been called the other way as Ramirez came home.
That run must have looked like 10 to the flailing Brewers offense, at least until the scoreboard showed that the Marlins had broken through for the game's first two runs against the Mets at Shea Stadium. Perhaps that took a bit of the pressure off the Brewers, and perhaps Piniella finally drew the wrong card from the deck in Sean Marshall, who allowed a leadoff double to Ray Durham that rekindled Milwaukee's hopes. Durham alertly advanced to third on a groundout that new third baseman Casey McGehee had to backhand past the bag near the foul line. Fielder drew an intentional walk, then Marshall gave way to Michael Wuertz, who had smothered the Brewers' lone rally the day before. Wuertz walked J.J. Hardy to load the bases but struck out Corey Hart on three curveballs, the last of which could have passed for a boat on Lake Michigan. Up came Craig Counsell, as powerless as a spent AAA battery but a pest nonetheless; over the previous week he'd put up a .556 OBP in 18 plate appearances, drawing walks, taking a couple HBPs, whatever it took. Here he drew a walk that forced in a run which may have saved the Brewers' season. Jason Kendall grounded out to end the threat, but they were back in business.
The rally appeared to buoy Sabathia. Not that he'd been flagging, but he came back out for the eighth inning and blew through the 100-pitch threshold by setting down the side on a tidy 13 pitches, notching two strikeouts. As if to send the message that this was his game and his game alone, manager Dale Sveum sent Sabathia up to the plate to lead off the eighth against Bobby Howry (5.35 ERA); the big fella had sent a loud foul ball down the right-field line in his previous turn and remained a threat. He struck out, but Cameron singled, and then Durham hit one a ton... but to the fat part of the ballpark in right center field. The beyond-capacity Miller Park crowd of 45,299-a mixture of Brewers and Cubs fans-groaned, but with an audible amount of cheering as well.
Those groans were drowned out entirely with the next swing of the bat. Braun, the hero of Thursday night via a walk-off grand slam, blasted a soaring drive to left-center field, and by the time it came down, ecstatic Milwaukee fans were commissioning a bronze statue to accompany the ones of Yount and Hank Aaron outside Miller Park. Such was the frenzy that nobody saw Fielder strike out with three mighty cuts.
Given the shaky state of their bullpen in recent days/weeks/months, there was no question that the ball and the Brewers' season would remain in Sabathia's hands in the ninth inning. He made the fans and his manager sweat, falling behind Alfonso Soriano 3-1 before eliciting a loud flyout to left and then yielding a single to Ryan Theriot to bring the tying run to the plate. He got ahead of Lee, however, and then generated a slick double-play ball that, while it didn't officially clinch anything, put the Brewers in a position to reach the postseason with a Mets loss. After about 20 minutes punctuated by sixteen pitching changes from Mets skipper Jerry Manuel, all of which the crowd and players watched on the stadium scoreboard screen, the Brewers had their berth.
Sunday's win vindicated Melvin's gutsy, go-for-broke move to acquire Sabathia from the Indians back in July, and the go-for-broke way they've handled him down the stretch; the complete game was the big man's seventh since his acquisition. When the campfire stories are told about the legendary pitchers who refused to give up the ball when the heat was at its hottest, he'll deserve a spot among the Bob Gibsons and Jack Morrises, at least in the eyes of Wisconsinites.
The win also vindicated the less-laudable and nearly unprecedented move to fire Ned Yost and replace him with Sveum with just 12 games remaining in a desperate attempt to right the team after they opened September with a 3-11 free fall. It's too early to get a real bead on Sveum's tactical differences from Yost given the state of his battered and tattered pitching staff, but here's an alarming stat: the last Brewer starting pitcher besides Sabathia to go beyond five innings came in Yost's penultimate game, the one where his handling of the bullpen cost him his job. Given two early exits apiece from Jeff Suppan and Ben Sheets (who at least has a note from his doctor), and bullpen starts from Yovani Gallardo and Seth McClung, it's something of a miracle that the Brewers survived to reel off a season-salvaging 6-1 sprint under those circumstances. But they did it, and that they did will remain a part of the lore of Milwaukee baseball for a good long time. Congratulations to the Brewers and to their fans, most particularly the extended Hardt family of Brookfield, Wisconsin.
Some notes from Sunday: