Monday, May 21, 2012

What's it going to take?

Nearly one year ago to the day, the Brewers had their defining moment; the moment that turned around their season. On May 20, 2011, I saw my third game of the year in person in which the only thing I thought I would take away was getting to see Zack Greinke pitch. Greinke, as he had been throughout the early part of the season, was sub-par and gave up four runs in six innings, keeping the Crew in the game. Turns out we weren't even halfway through the game.

When ranking the top sporting events I've attended, there are three Brewer games that probably crack the top five. Just for fun, let's go through my top five while we're at it!

5. Colorado Rockies @ Milwaukee Brewers (May 20, 2011)

So let's pick up where I left off. The Brewers overcame a 4-2 deficit and would tie the game in the bottom of the eighth inning on a Casey McGehee home run (really?). Okay, so I've been to extra inning games before and heck, I've even seen my fair share of walk-off victories. But this was different. The Brewers needed a boost. They were 21-23 with lofty expectations after making big splashes during the off-season. And they were in danger of going three games under .500...twice...after going down by one in both the 13th and 14th innings. In the 13th, it was Yuniesky Betancourt (really?) who would tie the game on a home run down the left field line. Then, in the bottom of the 14th...roughly six hours after I had arrived with my good friends Dan, Chris and Kyle at the Miller Park parking lot, Prince Fielder hit a ball to right field that to my knowledge still hasn't landed. I'll revisit this game later.

Brewers 7, Rockies 6 (F/14)

4. Penn State @ Wisconsin men's basketball (Jan. 24, 2010)

My one and only college basketball game at the Kohl Center was a doozy. The Nittany Lions, who hadn't won a Big Ten game all season, were on the verge of upsetting the 19th ranked Badgers towards the end of my sophomore year winter break (Don't worry. I took an interim class.) Travon Hughes was still on the team, Jordan Taylor was emerging as a star, and Jon Leuer was out with an injury. Taylor went on an unbelievable tear, scoring 18 of his 20 points after the 2:00 mark of the second half. He forced overtime with a layup and continued his dominance in the overtime period, sealing the win for Bucky. I can honestly say I have never heard a building louder than at the end of regulation. I'm not sure if I should ever return to the Kohl Center because nothing will ever top that experience, except maybe a court storming... (FORESHADOWING!)

Badgers 79, Nittany Lions 71 (F/OT)

3. Philadelphia Phillies @ Milwaukee Brewers (August 4, 2007)

In a late summer game against the Phillies, the Brewers were in the process of faltering. They had opened up an eight and a half game lead in the division, but that lead was slowly evaporating. It was a Saturday night. Miller was packed. I was sitting with my friend Heather who graciously brought me to several Brewer games where the seats were second deck right behind home plate. Aside from what will make number one on this list, I've never seen a better atmosphere at a baseball game. Down 5-4 in the bottom of the eighth, Prince Fielder hit an absolute bomb to right field (again) with a runner on to take a 6-5 lead, and Miller Park almost collapsed. But it was nothing compared to the roar that took place in the top of the ninth when Corey Hart reached up and brought one back from the right field seats. It saved the game and got Brewer Nation all kinds of excited, hoping this was the moment the team needed to get back on track. The Brewers would not make the postseason in '07 (they suffered a heartbreaking extra inning defeat the next day), but it's still surely a game with two moments I'll never forget.

Brewers 6, Phillies 5

2b. Ohio State @ Wisconsin football (October 16, 2010)

I've been to my fair share of Badger games, but none quite of this magnitude. The number one Ohio State Buckeyes were coming into town and before the season had began, Dan, who played in the marching band, sold me the rights to his ticket. Turns out it would be one of the biggest moments in Wisconsin football history. After David Gilreath returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, I knew I was in for a special night. The Buckeyes were never able to get over the hump and as the clock struck zero, chaos ensued. The student section flooded onto the field at Camp Randall, singing, chanting, hugging players, and celebrating a surreal moment. I almost lost my right shoe hopping over the railing, but it would have been worth it. The game may not have come down to the wire like every other game on this list, but the magnitude of the victory trumps that fact. As in three of the first four moments I've already mentioned, Kyle was also at the game. I'm thinking we should do this whole attend sporting events together thing more often...

Badgers 31, Buckeyes 18

2a. Chicago Bears @ Green Bay Packers (Jan. 2, 2010)

Negative temperatures. January. Lambeau Field. A playoff birth on the line. Playing against our heated rival. Yep. It wasn't pretty, but the Packers won, made the playoffs, and the rest is history. No words can describe this one. And yes, this means I'm giving you my top six sporting events attended, but it's my blog so tough shit!

Packers 10, Bears 3

1. Arizona Diamondbacks @ Milwaukee Brewers (Oct. 7, 2011)

I'll be damned if I ever see a better moment in person when it comes to sports. Hopefully I do, but then I'd be damned. It was game 5 of the NLDS against the D-Backs and the game was close the whole way, making for a rather tense atmosphere. The Brewers led 2-1 going into the eighth, and with K-Rod and Axford due up to pitch, it seemed all but over...but it's never that easy. K-Rod pulled his modern-day Houdini act, loading the bases before getting out of the jam. Unfortunately, Ax did not have the same luck and had to get out of a first-and-second with nobody out pickle (after the tying run had already scored). Talk about a heart-stopper. The Brewers couldn't win it in the ninth, but after a solid bounce-back inning from Axford, Milwaukee had a chance to win it again in the 10th. Carlos Gomez ripped a lead-off single, got over to second base with Nyjer Morgan at the plate, and scored on the Tony Plush single heard 'round the state of Wisconsin. To put things in perspective, it was only the sixth time in National League history that a deciding game in the playoffs was decided on a walk-off, and the first time since 2001. And I was there! Goosebumps will surface on my skin every time I watch that replay of Gomez crossing home. Oh, and did I mention that Kyle was there?

Brewers 3, D-Backs 2 (F/10)

Sorry for the diversion there, but let me return to the Rockies/Brewers classic from a year ago. It was the undeniable turning point of the Brewers season. From that point on, there was no real low point for Milwaukee, and they cruised to the Central Division title and the NLCS, where they would eventually fall to the HATED St. Louis Cardinals. As a fan, you look for moments, for games, that will get a team out of a slump; that will be the jump-start to a magical run. Many times, teams fail to capitalize on special moments, like I noted with the Phillies game in '07. Take a few weeks ago, for example. The Brewers had a similar victory to the Rockies game last season when they defeated the Cubs in 13 innings with a 13-18 record. On Sunday, the Brewers had another statement victory, winning 16-4 behind the inspiring effort of the red-hot Jonathan Lucroy (7 RBIs).

Monday night, however, the Brewers had another chance to make a statement and build off some momentum with a walk-off victory and failed, losing in 14 innings to the San Francisco Giants. It's been a season of countless starting lineups and enough ups and downs to last me an entire season, but as I stated in my last blog post, there's reason to be optimistic. Yeah, being 17-25 sucks, and I'd bet I could count on my fingers and toes the amount of teams that have made the playoffs after starting a season like that, but the Brewers are only six games behind the Cards in the division. It's May. Sure, there have been injuries, but it happens to everyone. Let's hope that the Brewers are still searching for their "defining moment" to get back on track. Monday's loss is frustrating to say the least, but tomorrow is another day, and that's what's great about baseball: you have to have a short memory and get right back on the horse the next day.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Once again, don't hit the panic button

Last week, after John Axford blew his first save of the season, thus ending his save streak of 49 straight games, the fourth best streak in the history of Major League Baseball. A few days earlier, Axford threw out two tweets that should have eased the minds of Brewer Nation:

Me (John Axford) - *May 9, 2011. 0-1, 5.40ERA, 6 saves, 2 BS. 6BB, 14K.
*May 9, 2012. 0-2, 5.59ERA, 6 saves, 0 BS, 7BB, 17K.

Milwaukee Brewers - *May 9, 2011 -- 15-20. 5th in the NL Central. *May 9, 2012 -- 13-18. 5th in NL Central.

It may not seem like it, but the Milwaukee Brewers are in the exact same position they were in a season ago. I don't know about you, but I was pretty pleased with the way last season went save for the NLCS exit to the hated St. Louis Cardinals. In prior years, it was the Brewers getting off to a hot start and then faltering at the end of the season, making missing out on the playoffs even more of a heartbreak. By starting slow, the Brewers take all the pressure and attention (except for the whole Ryan Braun thing) off themselves and can play better baseball. As it stands right now, the Crew is 16-20 and only five games back of the division leading Cardinals. That certainly doesn't seem so bad being just over a month into the season with over four months to play. But what do the Brewers need to do to string together some wins and get out of this funk?

As of late, Milwaukee's starting pitching has been superb. Even with the loss of Chris Narveson to a torn rotator cuff (which in my mind isn't much of a loss at all), the Brewers starting 5 has been pretty solid. Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, and Marco Estrada have combined to go nearly six innings a start while having a combined ERA of 4.12. The ERA doesn't seem like the greatest, but these guys are basically averaging a quality start, which is all you can ask out of your starting pitchers. Maybe we should expect more out of Greinke, the undoubted ace of the staff, but throw out a couple of stinker starts by Gallardo against the Cardinals and the starting five has done its job. Marcum has been nearly as good as Greinke, but hasn't been getting the same help from the bullpen or the offense (Greinke: 4-1, 2.88 ERA; Marcum: 2-1, 3.07 ERA). Speaking of the bullpen and offense...

This is where numbers have been down...way down. I would prefer to not even begin to calculate what the ERA of this bunch is and to say that Kameron Loe and Manny Parra have been the two most reliable pitchers out of the 'pen this year should say it all. Yes, Axford only has one blown save, but his ERA is 5.56 and he has failed to hold some tie ball games for the Brewers. Let's just hope this is just another slow start and Ax will get things back on track. The re-signing of K-Rod was supposed to make games that Milwaukee was leading seven innings long, but his ERA is sniffing five and he has been hit hard on numerous occasions. Still, both are guys I know who will turn it around and the Crew should be fortunate to still be in striking distance of first place despite their struggles. Loe and Parra have been pleasant surprises, but Jose Veras (acquired from Pittsburgh, ERA = 6.75) was handed the seventh inning job and has allowed a baserunner in something like 12 straight appearances. Ouch. And with Estrada out of the long relief role, there is no one who can fill that void who is currently on the roster. Wily Peralta seems ideal, but I can understand wanting to get him his starts at Triple A Nashville, because that team matters a lot more than Milwaukee. Vinny Chulk? No, thanks. Thankfully, the Brewers' starters going deep in games has made this issue small, but it's important to have a guy like Estrada in your 'pen to keep you in games.

Hopefully what I just said about the bullpen makes everyone feel a little better about things because I'm lost when it comes to the offense. I can say this much: I feel good about Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy. That's about it. I like that my man Taylor Green is with the club and would like to see him get more time at first and second. I like that Travis Ishikawa has been a solid contributor. I like that Aramis Ramirez has a 12-game hitting streak and that he trails only Braun in RBIs. Here's the problem: it's not enough. There were a few more things I LIKED before the injury bug bit the Brewers...hard. Mat Gamel, Alex Gonzalez and Carlos Gomez were all doing positive things before Gamel and A-Gon's ACLs betrayed them and Gomez (.280 AVG) pulled his hammy. The return of Gomez will be a welcome sight and give the Brewers a solid left to right of Brauner, Go-Go and Corey Hart, who if not anything else has brought a big stick. Combine the positives I just listed with the security blankets of Nori Aoki and George Kottaras (.290 AVG), and there are reasons to be hopeful that this unit can collectively turn it around. After all, the Brewers are fifth in runs scored in the National League (14th in average), but also 15th in ERA (4.50).

So what do we make of all this? The Brewers have pretty much nowhere to go but up. K-Rod and Axford are going to become more reliable at the end of games, Loe has proven he can take on the seventh inning role, at least until Veras figures things out, and the starting five is collectively getting the job done and working fairly deep into games. As far as the offense, can Rickie Weeks really suck this bad for six months? Will Nyjer Morgan revisit his Tony Plush days? Can Luuuuuuc stay hot? Can guys get on base in front of Braun and A-Ram (see: Weeks and Nyjer questions)? I'd be lying if I said I have the answers to those questions, but my guess is that Rickie can get it together. Until then, why not play guys who are proving to get the job done (see: Green, Aoki, Gomez when he gets back)? Or at least move Weeks down in the order and have Lucroy continue hitting in the two-hole. I'm sorry for all the questions, but there have been a lot of them in this early baseball season. And that's what people need to remember: the season is early. Stay loyal to your Brewers, root them on, and be there for when they (hopefully) flip the switch.

By the way, I graduated, which is cool, and now I can blog more. I'll be interning at the Division III Baseball World Series, but after that it's anyone's guess. Hopefully the real world is kind to me and I find full-time employment soon after this internship, and if that should occur, you'll all be the first to know! (that is, if you follow me on Twitter...or if you're my mom)