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Division crown for Brewers is theirs to lose

By Colin Fly
Associated Press / August 21, 2011

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MILWAUKEE - Shaun Marcum carried the postcard addressed to about a dozen Milwaukee Brewers in his right hand, part of the multitude of mail players receive each season.

This one caught the pitcher’s eye. The “Save the Date’’ note wanted the players to hold aside Saturday, Oct. 1.

No offense to the soon-to-be newlyweds in nearby Neenah, Wis., but Marcum and the rest of the Brewers have other plans.

The best wedding gift they can provide? Hosting Game 1 of a National League Divisional Series.

It’s a scenario that seemed unlikely until Milwaukee reeled off the best stretch in franchise history, going 19-2 over a three-week period before losing, 5-1, to the Dodgers Thursday. The run vaulted the Brewers from third behind Pittsburgh and St. Louis in the NL Central to as many as seven games ahead, their biggest division lead ever this late in a season.

All but three of the wins came against NL Central opponents, and what started as a three-way chase is now Milwaukee’s solo quest for its first division crown since 1982.

“Confidence level is not really even a thought. We know we’re good and basically it’s ours to lose right now,’’ right fielder Corey Hart said. “When we’re out there, we’re going to be a hard team to beat.’’

The Brewers insist this swagger started in spring training.

General manager Doug Melvin hired rookie manager Ron Roenicke from the Angels staff after two disappointing seasons under Ken Macha. He went out and acquired Zack Greinke from Kansas City and Marcum from Toronto, trading away shortstop Alcides Escobar and four prospects in the process.

Melvin also deftly diffused what could’ve been this group’s biggest distraction - Prince Fielder’s future. The slugging first baseman signed a $15.5-million, one-year deal and will be eligible for free agency for the first time after the World Series.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen after this year. So, I want to make sure if I do leave, I want to leave a winner,’’ Fielder said. “I love this city. The team gave me my chance. If I were to leave, I want to leave a winner.’’

That’s let all the Brewers savor this run. Fielder’s best friend, Rickie Weeks, insists that they aren’t trying to win for any one player, but clearly they want what could be Fielder’s final few weeks in Milwaukee to be memorable.

“Being able to win for Prince is huge because he’s a friend. He’s not just a teammate, he’s a close friend to a lot of us,’’ Hart said. “Whether it’s his last year or he comes back, to have that year where we did it together would be special for everybody.’’

The Brewers’ postseason run in 2008 was special, too, because they snapped a 26-year playoff drought as the NL’s wild card. The team traded for CC Sabathia and rode the big lefthander down the stretch. Still, Milwaukee stumbled into October after beginning September with a 4-15 record and needed to win six of its final seven to reach the postseason.

These Brewers don’t believe there’ll be a similar collapse.

“Our pitching staff has become the strength of the team. That’s always a good thing especially when you have an offense that’s capable of scoring runs like we are,’’ third baseman Casey McGehee said. “The pitching is the focal point or the key to your success and to have them pitch the way that they have pretty much all year, barring a couple of games here or there. I’d say that’s probably the magical formula. Good pitching goes a long ways.’’

Starting pitchers Greinke, Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, and Randy Wolf all boast ERAs below 4.00. They’ve been a remarkably healthy group, too, since Greinke missed the first month of the season because of a cracked rib suffered during a pickup basketball game. Fifth starter Chris Narveson has been on the 15-day disabled list, after cutting his thumb on a pair of scissors.

Milwaukee also has depth on the bench. The Brewers brought in Mark Kotsay, re-signed Craig Counsell, and took a flier by trading for Nyjer Morgan, who has turned into a fan favorite and one of the biggest characters in baseball by channeling his alter ego, “Tony Plush.’’

The Brewers’ weakest link was the back of the bullpen, so Melvin struck first in the July trade market, dealing for Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez immediately after the All-Star Game to become the eighth-inning pitcher.

After Rickie Weeks severely sprained his left ankle just before the trading deadline, Melvin acquired Felipe Lopez from the Rays and Jerry Hairston Jr. from the Nationals. Hairston won a World Series with the Yankees in 2009, and said he sees a lot of similarities with this year’s bunch of Brewers.

“Those guys were crazy - with Johnny Damon, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera - they were really loose. This clubhouse is very similar,’’ Hairston said. “This is a very loose group, a very confident group. They have fun, and they expect to win. Coming in here, I felt that going in. They’ve definitely met the expectations.’’

It didn’t appear that the Brewers would be special early.

Milwaukee started 0-4, which Roenicke called four of the longest days he’s ever had, and slumped to as many as six games under .500 in May after a seven-game losing streak. The coaching staff maintained a steady message - have fun and don’t worry so much.

“They weren’t pointing fingers. They believed in us and we felt that as a group,’’ Hart said. “That’s a big reason why we were able to stay focused and positive.’’

The Brewers also kept winning at home. Milwaukee set a record at Miller Park, which opened in 2001, by winning nine straight in May to climb back over .500. They also had an eight-game streak that’s helped to build the best home mark in baseball at 47-16.

The success has turned into a big boost at the gates. After drawing 3 million fans in 2008 and 2009, the smallest market in baseball has 24 sellouts this year and needs to average 37,447 fans over its final 18 games to surpass 3 million again.

The schedule also favors the Brewers.

Milwaukee plays just two teams with above-.500 marks in the final six weeks of the season - three-game series home and away with the Cardinals and four home games against the NL East-leading Phillies Sept. 8-11 that could be a preview of a National League Championship Series.

Roenicke said he’s not looking that far ahead, and doesn’t even like to receive congratulations from fans around town who believe it’s a foregone conclusion that Milwaukee will make the postseason.

“There’s still a long ways to go, we need to stay away from any long stretch when we’re not playing well,’’ the manager said. “We’ve played great ball for a long time. I don’t know if we can stay this hot, but we’re doing a lot of things right.’’

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