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Ned Yost could have thrown up his hands many times in the initial years of his first major league managerial job. Worse yet, he could have deviated from the plan General Manager Doug Melvin devised. That plan wasn’t about bringing back the glory years for the Brewers-after all, this is a franchise with two postseason appearances in 38 seasons since being born as the Seattle Pilots in 1969 in baseball’s second round of expansion-but to simply make Milwaukee competitive.

Mo< "A lot of times people would ask why I didn't bench J.J. Hardy or pinch-hit for him in a tough situation,” Yost said. “They would ask why I didn’t take Rickie Weeks out for defensive purposes in the late innings when we had a lead. If I had made those moves, perhaps we would have won a game or two more in the last couple of years. That wasn’t what we were looking for. We were taking the long-term view of things, and that was to make this franchise competitive again. To do that, it meant playing the young guys and letting them learn.”

That meant that Yost, who grew quite accustomed to winning after a 12-year run as a coach on Bobby Cox‘s staff in Atlanta, had to suffer through a lot of losing. Yost took over a club that went 56-106 in 2002, and would lose 94 games in each of his first two seasons. The Brewers made a 13-game improvement to 81-81 in 2005, their first non-losing season since 1992, but fell back to 75-87 last year during an injury-riddled season.

“I get asked a lot if losing all those games was tough, and it honestly wasn’t,” Yost said. “It’s not that I like to lose but I knew there was going to be a payoff down the road. I was convinced we were going to have a good ballclub. Knowing that day would come is what kept my spirits up and everyone else’s.”

That day has arrived this season, as the Brewers have the best record in the National League at 53-40 and lead the Central by 4 ½ games over the hard-charging Chicago Cubs. Buoyed by a 25-12 start, the Brewers have been able to withstand challenge so far by going 28-28 in their 56 games since, though their division lead has been whittled from a season-high 8 ½ games on June 23, and is even more tenuous now that staff ace Ben Sheets will miss at least one month with a finger injury suffered last Saturday.

Left fielder Geoff Jenkins has suffered longer than any Brewers’ player. A homegrown product of Milwaukee’s farm system, he made his major league debut in 1998, and played all the way through the dark period. He had the chance to escape when he became a free agent following the 2004 season, but he decided to stay, signing a three-year, $23 million contract.

“The biggest reason I signed back was because I was excited about the future,” Jenkins said. “We had lost for so many years here and I really wanted to be in Milwaukee when the Brewers finally won. I saw the young guys we had on the major league club and coming up through the farm system, and I was also convinced Doug Melvin and Ned Yost were the guys who were going to get this turned around. I’m glad I stayed, that’s for sure. It’s been tremendous to see all the excitement in Milwaukee. The fans have waited a long time for this, and they are so jacked up. I can only imagine it’s only going to get crazier as we get later into the season.”

Brewers’ fans haven’t had much to celebrate. The franchise’s only postseason appearances came in successive seasons in 1981-82, and the Brewers lost a heart-breaking seven-game World Series to St. Louis the second year. The Brewers haven’t even been in contention since 1992, their last winning season. That was so long ago that they were still in the American League, taking Toronto down to the penultimate day of the season before being eliminated in the East race.

However, these aren’t Bud Selig’s Brewers anymore. Mark Attanasio bought the team prior to the 2005 season, and has taken the payroll up to $70 million this season despite playing in one of baseball’s smallest markets. It had dipped to $27 million in 2004. Sheets marvels at ownership’s commitment, commenting “Mark really wants to win and you can see that from top to bottom of the organization. When he has needed to keep guys here or sign someone to make the team better, he has been willing to do that. A lot of people say small-market teams can’t compete, but you can tell Mark doesn’t buy that.”

Sheets goes on to note about Attanasio was that “(w)hat he was saying is he believed in us and was going to do everything he could to give us a chance to win. If you watched this team, you could see things coming together. We had a tough season last year, but you saw all the pieces were starting to fall into place, in the lineup, in the rotation, and in the bullpen. Now, they’re all fitting together, and it’s made for a pretty darn good team.”

One proof of that ownership commitment came this past winter, when the Brewers signed right-hander Jeff Suppan to a four-year, $42 million contract as a free agent in December. Suppan had helped St. Louis win the World Series last October, also earning recognition as the Most Valuable Player in the Cardinals‘ win over the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series. The wisdom of signing Suppan can be questioned, as he is third among the Brewers’ starters with a 1.2 SNLVAR, trailing Sheets (3.6) and Dave Bush (1.4).

The Brewers’ centerpiece is a young homegrown infield made up of high-round draft picks by highly regarded scouting director Jack Zduriencik: first baseman Prince Fielder (35.4 VORP), second baseman Rickie Weeks (3.1), third baseman Ryan Braun (31.3), and shortstop J.J. Hardy (18.8). Weeks and Hardy are 24, while Fielder and Braun are 23. Fielder (2002), Weeks (2003), and Braun (2005) were first-round picks, while Hardy was a second-rounder in 2001. It’s little wonder that Yost has this to say about Zduriencik: “If Jack drafted Pee Wee Herman, I’d be feeling pretty good about it.”

Jenkins (6.6) and catcher Johnny Estrada (10.1) are the only starting position players over 27, as 25-year-old right fielder Corey Hart (23.7) is also having a breakout season. Bill Hall (10.9), a 27-year-old, has had his transition from shortstop to center field slowed by a severely sprained ankle suffered earlier this month, but he should return from the Disabled List sometime next week.

The Brewers’ bullpen is another source of strength, and includes four of the league’s best relievers this season in closer Francisco Cordero (2.368 WRXL) and Derrick Turnbow (2.300), Carlos Villanueva (2.112) and Matt Wise (1.497). Cordero replaced Turnbow as the closer last July after being acquired from Texas in the Carlos Lee trade. “I wouldn’t want to be playing against us when we have the lead late in the game,” Jenkins said. “We have two All-Star closers, and the guys pitching in front of them are awfully good, too. They always give us a chance to win.”

The Brewers may have won more games this season than they are accustomed to at this point, but Yost does not think his club is a flash in the plan. “We didn’t build this team just to have one good year. We want to be consistently good for a number of years, and I firmly believe we can do that,” Yost said. “But we’re also not getting giddy just because we’ve had some success so far this season. There is still a lot of work to be done.”

Still, the Cubs … “I like the position we’re in now a lot more than where we were in other years,” Yost said.

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