Beer & Brats

The 2007 Milwaukee Brewers will go (only) as far as their youth will take them.

If you listen to old baseball men talk, they say a lot of things that simply can't be quantified on a stat sheet. They talk about teams that played the game the right way, they talk about the great clutch hitters, and they talk about teams who know how to win.


The old men like our own Mike Shannon might hold up a team like the regular season 2004 Cardinals, and say that there was a team that simply knew how to win – that even though they won plenty of games on talent, they found a way to win plenty more through this intangible mental state. (Statistically speaking they put enough runs on the board ahead of their opponents to win approximately 100 games, according to a Pythagorean W-L formula. Wins 101-105 on the season must have come from some other storehouse of baseball lore – take your pick of "grit," "determination," or "pluck.")


It's a fascinating argument, all the more so because though it cannot ever be proved, it can be supported by the telling of countless stories – which is of course the primary purpose that old baseball men have on this planet. The ancients might even say that the knowledge they stored up gave them a critical reserve of baseball magic that carried them last year from their lowly status as an 83-win winner of a terrible division to becoming World Series Champs.


This makes for an interesting topic of conversation when handicapping the NL Central race this year, which at this point looks like a two-horse affair between the Cubs – a team that knows more about not winning than nearly any other – and the Brewers, who haven't had a winning season since the days of Paul Molitor and Robin Yount.


Is this a new Brewers team? Do they suddenly know how to win, or must they have it scared into them through a harrowing drive toward the 162nd game? Does a fired-up Lou Piniella-led Cubs team breathing down their necks make them nervous? Can either team really afford to thumb their nose at history?


Looking at the sad sagas of these two fate-stricken teams, it is just barely in the realm of possibility that both teams fold down the stretch and the Cardinals somehow squeak a few more wins than losses out of the next 67 games, and this creaky, cranky, aged and slow-but-steady team might win the race.

Other things are possible too, like Yadier Molina stealing another base in my lifetime. Or me being fired from this non-paying position just for breathing such heresy after the Birds drop yet another critical series against our division's frontrunners, bringing us to 4-9 against the Cubs and Brewers so far this year.


Still though, Brewers fans will unhappily admit that we are a long way from the finish. The Cubs are in the midst of a hot streak, playing 15 games above .500 since June 2nd, a streak that neatly matches the Brewers' season-opening run.


Milwaukee has plateau'd at 10 games over the median, and has allowed sons of the southern lake shore to within a game and a half, after holding a mountainous 8.5-game lead as recently as June 23rd. One bad series against a riled-up team, and the momentum might be lost for the year.


This is today's reality for the Cardinals. We must play the role of spoiler before we can pretend to the role of contender. Take down the bunting, and stop referring to our men as the defending World Champions – this is 2007, and we are the decided underdogs in this series.


"Youth is Wasted on the Young"


When The First Pitch profiled the Brewers long back before the second home series of the year, we naturally took a look at the youngsters in the infield, first baseman Prince Fielder (23), second sacker Rickie Weeks (24), and shortstop J.J. Hardy (24). Since then, a fourth youngster – 23-year-old Ryan Braun – has come roaring out of the minor leagues to join them at third base. One more and they can form Voltron.


Fielder's name you might have seen around. At the top of the National League home run chart, for instance, or in the box score for all 100 of his team's games, or in the starting lineup of the All Star game, or possibly among the also-rans at the Coney Island hot dog-eating contest. (A man's got to stay in shape, even if that shape is round.) He has taken the Ryan Howard turn, and unquestionably blossomed from "future star" to just plain "star."


Hardy broke out early, hitting 18 home runs in the season's first half, most of them in the second spot in the lineup – providing that "damage" early that La Russa loves so much, and has found so scarce in this season of maladies. Getting it from a shortstop, and giving up only nine errors in return for this offensive production, gives manager Ned Yost a formidable weapon.


Braun is playing the game as a man among boys, rather than the other way around, and with 16 home runs and a gaudy .346 average in only 53 games has mashed his way into the short list of National League rookie-of-the-year candidates. He has also found his way into the coveted third spot of the lineup after his mid-season call-up, which is almost unprecedented for a division-leading team, especially one that was

hardly struggling to score runs.


Of the foursome, only Weeks has disappointed – after his five-homer April, he has batted a lowly .200/.326/.290 with only 13 extra-base hits while being troubled by his surgically repaired right wrist. This, plus the medical drama of the Cardinals and Dr. George Paletta, makes me wonder (rhetorically) if perhaps surgery isn't the miracle of sports medicine that we all expect it to be.


Weeks' patience and speed still make him a viable lead-off man, and his defense is at least decent enough to not be hurting the team, but there is now nearly three years of tarnish on the shine of this much-hyped prospect.


Every fifth day, these four players have a comrade in arms in dart-throwing phenom Yovani Gallardo, a 21-year-old who could not be long kept in the minors. Gallardo was first called up to give Capuano's lower back a rest, and is now pitching in the stead of the team's oft-injured ace, Ben Sheets. Anyone expecting Sheets' latest ouchie to provide an opening in the standings must be disappointed – Gallardo has won both of his starts in Sheets' place, allowing only a single run over 12 and 2/3



However, young pitching prospects – unlike young hitters – are treated as fragile fawns, and doubtless the Brewers will find some excuse to move the young man back into the bullpen as soon as possible, despite the possibility that he may nearly be the best pitcher on the roster. For a team that prizes its youth, a repeat of Francisco Liriano's story (or Mark Prior's, or Kerry Wood's, or Dwight Gooden's, or …) would be a troubling blow.


Pay to Play


The Brewers are famous for their youth – the top draft choices that netted these players have long been the only silver lining to a black cloud that stretched fourteen years wide. But the lesser-told story has been the willingness of this team's ownership – now 100% Seligfree! – to spend millions of dollars on the talent necessary to fill in the cracks.


For example, Milwaukee's season-opening starting rotation – Ben Sheets, Jeff Suppan, Chris Capuano, Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas – will earn a combined $23.2 million, comparable to the Cardinals' expenditure on pitching last year. It is more than ironic that these five men combined stand to be paid more than the entire Brewers team of just a few years ago. It is a sign of a commitment to competition.


With the July 31st trade deadline approaching fast, there have even been rumblings from owner Mark Attanasio and general manager Bob Melvin of taking on additional salary to boost the team's chances of winning. Acquiring a proven setup man in Scott Linebrink from San Diego for three pitching prospects may be only the first of such moves.


However, the fate of the Brewers most likely comes down to Fielder, Weeks, Hardy, and Braun. These young men at the top four spots in the lineup form the core and identity of the team, and their ability to weather a full season's pennant race will do as much as anything to determine hether the Brewers rise or fall.


In a way this is good news for the team, as young players have the most "upside" – they cannot know the limits of their own talent until the season's end gives them a pause to reflect. But if a veteran presence and knowing how to win are truly factors to be sought after, then this could be a difficult season that starts with promise but ends with a vow heard all too often: "wait 'til next year."


May the aged Cardinals with their accumulated wisdom be the first to put them to the test.

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