Brilliant Brewers swatting away all their challengers
Four weeks ago, the Milwaukee Brewers were in third place, locked in what seemed to be a season-long battle for the top of the National League's Central Division. Today, they are alone in first, well clear of St Louis and their other rivals.
They did it with a franchise-best streak of 22 wins in 25 games, and now they are poised to win their first division crown since 1982.
As the Brewers have decimated the opposition over the past month, they have a displayed a swagger that players insist was there all along.
"Confidence level is not really even a thought," said Corey Hart, the right fielder. "We know we're good. Basically it's ours to lose right now. When we're out there, we're going to be a hard team to beat."
Before the season, Doug Melvin, the general manager, hired the rookie manager, Ron Roenicke, and acquired pitchers Zack Greinke from Kansas City and Shaun Marcum from Toronto.
He also diffused what could have been this team's biggest distraction - Prince Fielder's future.
The slugging first baseman signed a one-year deal for US$15.5 million (Dh57m) and will be eligible for free agency after the season.
"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 has let all the Brewers savour this run. Fielder's best friend, Rickie Weeks, said they are not 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 had a memorable run to the post-season in 2008, when they snapped a 26-year play-off drought. The team traded for CC Sabathia, now with the Yankees, and rode the big left-handed pitcher down the stretch, but stumbled into October.
These Brewers do not believe there will 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 offence that's capable of scoring runs like we are," said Casey McGehee, the third baseman. "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."
The Brewers' weakest link was the back of the bullpen, so Melvin struck first in the July trade market, dealing for Francisco Rodriguez, the Mets closer, immediately after the All-Star game to become the eighth-inning pitcher.
Just before the trading deadline, Melvin acquired Felipe Lopez from Tampa Bay and Jerry Hairston Jr from the Washington Nationals.
Hairston won a World Series with the Yankees in 2009, and said he sees a lot of similarities with this year's Brewers.
"Those guys were crazy, 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."
Published: August 23, 2011 04:00 AM