Oddly enough, in this greatest of times in the Wisconsin sports world, I don’t feel that badly about the Brewers’ losing the National League Championship Series 4 games to 2.
It would have been one thing to lose a 5–4 nailbiter in the seventh game. When you lose the final game 12–6, as entertaining as the first part of the game was, you generally realize that your team ran out of something. In the case of the Brewers Sunday, they ran out of, in order, pitching, defense and managing. Teams really should be able to win if they score six runs and chase the starting pitcher out of the game one-third of the way into the game.
Unlike apparently a lot of Brewers fans, I’m also not that upset with losing to the Cardinals. They are the most class organization in the National League (the most World Series championships in the National League). The Cardinals are the number one sport in St. Louis, and St. Louis arguably is the best baseball town in the U.S. Like his personality or not, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa is about as good as it gets in baseball, as demonstrated by how he managed his pitching staff during the NLCS.
As we all learned with the Packers in 2010 (or, for that matter, 2007), sports seasons have two distinct parts — the regular season, when teams are trying to win conference or division titles and get into the playoffs, and the postseason, when the goal obviously is to win it all, whatever “it” is. (And I’ve learned over the years that getting into the final and losing it is preferable to not getting into the final at all, particularly if you lose in the game or series before the final, such as the seventh game of a baseball League Championship Series.)
Independent of Albert Pujols’ claim that Prince Fielder is likely to stay in Milwaukee, Fielder will follow the directives of his agent, Scott Boras, and head toward a wealthier team, since the more a player makes, the more his agent makes. (That was probably written on the wall when the Brewers chose to sign Ryan Braun, not Fielder, to a long-term contract.) That is not to suggest that the Brewers need to retain Fielder at any price; for one thing, the more they pay Fielder, the less they can pay anyone else. The Round Mound of Pound, who at a listed 275 pounds might be the fattest vegetarian on the planet, is not going to get any more defensively flexible, nor lighter as he ages. (For proof, look at Fielder’s father, Cecil, who started his career at 255 and ended up around 300.)
The bigger issue is who replaces Fielder as the Brewers’ cleanup hitter, lest Braun set a single-season record for intentional walks next season. Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks are sort of the same player, somewhere between a leadoff hitter and an RBI-producer — not great at either. The Brewers moved Mat Gamel from third base to first base in case Fielder leaves, but according to Gamel’s manager, Don Money, Gamel may not be the answer:
“If he can get his head right, and that’s the thing,” Money said. “He’s hard-headed. He doesn’t carry himself well. You have to carry yourself like a professional, and he doesn’t do it and I’ve said it to him.”
Money offered several examples, beginning in 2008 when the Brewers made Gamel a September call-up and then sent him home Sept. 19 after Gamel declined to take optional batting practice with the other rookies and then complained of a sore shoulder. In ’09, his first big league Spring Training camp, Brewers veterans moved Gamel’s locker outside at Maryvale Baseball Park after he reported late on several occasions.
Then, in 2011, with a chance to impress new Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, Money says Gamel reported 25-30 pounds overweight. Gamel told Money he couldn’t work out over the winter because he was rehabbing from toe surgery. …
Gamel finished the Triple-A season in a slump that Money attributed to trying for the two home runs he needed for his first 30-homer season.
Money said Gamel was upset when the Brewers passed him over in late August to promote third baseman Taylor Green, another left-handed hitter.
“Maybe it’s an awakening that, ‘Hey, I’m not the big boy on the block anymore,’” Money said.
(Read the rest of the MLB.com story, and you’ll conclude that maybe no one Money managed is major league-worthy, if for their bad attitudes than anything else.)
Part of what makes losing the NLCS painful, though, is the limited opportunity of small-market teams. Major League Baseball teams do not share as much broadcast revenue in percentage terms as NFL teams do, which means that the only thing keeping big-market teams (i.e. the Yankees and Boston) from getting in the playoffs every year is the quality, or lack thereof, of their own management. (See Cubs, Chicago, and Dodgers, Los Angeles.)
Former Milwaukee sportswriter Mike Bauman nicely sums up the feelings of Brewers fans:
This was a team that was structured to win this year, right now, immediately, before the likely departure of Prince Fielder in free agency. It made marked improvements, winning a franchise-record 96 regular-season games, winning a division for the first time in 29 years, winning a postseason series for the first time in 29 years. …
But when the smallest media market in Major League Baseball draws 3 million people three times in four seasons, that kind of devotion needs to be repaid by something better than improvement. It probably deserves nothing less than a World Series championship. But in the interests of upper Midwestern fair play and reasonableness, let’s say that a National League pennant would settle the score. …
What next? The baseball acumen of general manager Doug Melvin and his crew is undisputed. The organizational strength is in place. Roenicke had a fine rookie season as manager, creating a positive environment for his team, managing an aggressive, intelligent style of play. The Brewers will move into the future with all five starting pitchers returning. The NL’s best closer in 2011, John Axford, will be back and so will a core of still relatively young talent, including Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Jonathan Lucroy. Nyjer Morgan and his entertainment value could be back. Carlos Gomez could be ready to play up to his talent level. Milwaukee will need a shortstop, just as it did all this season. …
That kind of baseball following — the understanding, the appreciation, the loyalty — ought to be rewarded with a league championship. Nice try by the 2011 Brewers, but after 29 years, the Wisconsin baseball public is still waiting.
That’s the optimistic view. The more realistic view is that Gomez remains unable to get on base, Weeks is still a player who will drive fans nuts and thrill them in the same game, and Hart’s defense may be going backward. And without Fielder, there will be a huge hole in their batting order that probably cannot be filled internally. One might ask how many of the starting pitchers the Brewers want back given the poor postseasons of Marcum and Wolf. And the bullpen is likely to have as large a hole as the batting order given the likely departure of eighth-inning reliever Francisco Rodriguez.
Hope you enjoyed 2011. It may be a while before we have a season like this again.