On Baseball | From wurst to first in Milwaukee
The Milwaukee Brewers haven't been to the postseason since 1982. They haven't had a winning season since 1992. The Brewers' identity in recent years has centered on two sideshows - their wisecracking broadcaster, Bob Uecker, and the ever popular sixth-inning sausage race at home games.
The Milwaukee Brewers haven't been to the postseason since 1982. They haven't had a winning season since 1992.
The Brewers' identity in recent years has centered on two sideshows - their wisecracking broadcaster, Bob Uecker, and the ever popular sixth-inning sausage race at home games.
Usually in Milwaukee, the sausage-race standings are a lot more compelling than the National League Central standings.
Not this year.
The Brewers, who come to Philadelphia for a four-game series that begins tomorrow night, have the best record in the majors. They've played such good ball and created such excitement in their hometown that they've completely overshadowed the arrival of the sombrero-wearing chorizo, this season's new entrant in the sausage race.
"The people in Milwaukee are going nuts," Brewers catcher Johnny Estrada said in a telephone interview. "They're dying for a winner.
"People always called the Cubs lovable losers, but the Brewers were even worse."
Only the Expos-Nationals franchise has a longer postseason drought than the Brewers, who lost to the Cardinals in the 1982 World Series. Back then, of course, the Brewers were an American League club.
Estrada, who joined the Brewers in an off-season trade with the Diamondbacks, warned that it was still early and many tests were awaiting the surprising team, such as this weekend's series in New York against the Mets. But he said the club had the ingredients to contend all year.
Those ingredients include a stable of young position-player talent, strong starting pitching, a tough 1-2 punch at the back of the bullpen, and the calming hand of manager Ned Yost, a Bobby Cox disciple.
"From day one of spring training, all Ned's talked about is winning a championship," Estrada said.
Fresh off a 9-1 homestand, the Brewers entered the weekend ranked first in the NL in slugging, second in homers, third in batting average, and tied for third (with the Phillies) in runs. Their team ERA of 3.33 was the third best in the league, and Derrick Turnbow and Francisco Cordero, the team's primary setup man and closer, respectively, had allowed just four runs in 32 innings.
This prowess allowed the Brewers to hold a seven-game lead on the second-place Cubs. Never has a Brewers team held a lead so big. The team's biggest lead in 1982 was 61/2 games.
Ah, but there are folks out there, call them skeptics if you will, who wonder whether the Brewers are simply an early-season wonder or the real deal.
"I think we'll have a good idea who we are by the end of May," said Estrada, who came up with the Phillies in 2001.
The Brewers were dreadful on the road last year, going 27-54. They are in the midst of a stretch that will have them play 13 of 16 games away from home. In that span, they face two first-place teams, the Mets and Dodgers.
Estrada, who turns 31 next month, had hopes of returning to the Phillies in the last off-season.
"I wanted to come back," he said. "They needed a catcher. It seemed like a good fit."
But Estrada isn't unhappy about where he ended up. He's hitting over .300, playing every day, and captaining a strong pitching staff.
"Having played against this team the last couple of years, I could see they were headed in a good direction," he said. "I like this team. We've got a good group of young, hungry guys who are on their way to breakout seasons. The young guys bring a ton of energy to the ballpark. It's fun to be around."
With slugging first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, shortstop J.J. Hardy, and centerfielder Bill Hall, the Brewers have the kind of young talent that makes people notice. All four were drafted by the club.
"It's very hard to find a team with so many good young players," Mets manager Willie Randolph told reporters.
Estrada said that Fielder, the son of Cecil Fielder, the two-time AL home-run king, had superstar written all over him.
"Actually, he's already there," Estrada said. "He just turned 23, and he's hitting in the middle of the lineup and putting up big numbers. The guy is hungry. It's in his blood."
Fielder had 10 homers and 29 RBIs in his first 34 games. Hardy was hitting .331 with 27 RBIs.
The pitching has also been stout. Starters Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan and Claudio Vargas all have sub-3.00 ERAs. Ben Sheets and Dave Bush round out the solid rotation.
Bush was the MVP of the Central League when he caught for Conestoga High School. He became a pitcher at Wake Forest. He'll be on the mound tomorrow night at Citizens Bank Park.
Milwaukee starters have to feel good about handing the ball to the bullpen. After struggling as a closer last year, Turnbow, a former Phillies farmhand, seems to have found his niche as a setup man. Cordero entered Friday with 15 saves, the most in the majors.
"We're running two closers out there," Estrada said. "If we have the lead in the seventh inning, we feel pretty good."
Everything feels good in Milwaukee right now. The Brewers are winning. Fans are buzzing. The sausage race is still a big attraction at home games, but this year it might have competition from a pennant race.