VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – Darn those woebegone Chicago Cubs!
They sure know how to ruin a great storyline.
If it weren’t for the perennially cellar-dwelling, lovable loser Cubbies, the Milwaukee Brewers would have an excellent shot at a worst-to-first finish in the National League Central this campaign.
Last season, the 74-88 Brewers finished a whopping game 25 games out first place in the NL Central.
Alas, that was only bad enough for fourth place in their five-team divisional loop.
Because the Cubs lost 96 games, the Brew Crew were able to avoid the NL Central basement.
But at least the Brewers are still arguably the biggest surprise in all of MLB this season.
They led their powerful division for most of the year — often comfortably — until a recent skid dropped them out of first place.
But in Milwaukee’s case, a fourth-to-first or playoffs angle still ain’t too bad a hook for MAS to hang his hat on.
After all, the Brewers’ NL Central competition DID comprise half of the six-team National League playoff field a year ago — the eventual pennant-winning Cardinals, talented Cincinnati and burgeoning power Pittsburgh all qualified.
Few pundits saw the Milwaukee turnabout coming.
But while the rest of the baseball world may have been caught off guard, such was not the case with the Brewers themselves.
“I’m not really surprised,” free agent pitching acquisition Matt Garza told MAS. “It’s more like enjoying expectations.
“There was a lot of positivity and a good attitude in spring training and it has just kind of played itself out on the field.”
Added Brewers manager Ron Roenicke: “I think we’re a good team when everyone is healthy and all is right.”
“All is right” is an, um, subtle way of saying: If slugging outfielder Ryan Braun is available and not under suspension for PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) use — as he was for much of last season.
Braun — back and leading the ball club with 78 RBIs — is once again the key to one of the most potent offenses in MLB.
He is joined by dynamic center fielder Carlos Gomez (21 homers); Jonathan Lucroy — a great defensive catcher who’s also hitting .301; outfielder Khris Davis, team leader with 22 HRs; solid third sacker Aramis Ramirez — .295 average; and slugging first baseman Mark Reynolds (21 bombs).
The current Brew Crew line-up is a throwback unit that sparks comparison to “Harvey’s Wallbangers,” the fence-busting outfit that captured Suds City’s last pennant (American League variety) in 1982 under then-skipper Harvey Kuenn.
The current Milwaukee Murderer’s Row was a big reason Garza opted to sign with the Brewers this past offseason (he also had 50 million other reasons).
“I had a lot of faith in my decision,” recalled Garza.”I knew what their lineup could do.
“I think I’m at the right place.”
Garza provides a veteran top-of-the-starting-rotation presence, something Milwaukee desperately needed.
While Garza solidified the Brewers’ frontline hurling, another free-agent signee, Frankie “K-Rod” Rodriguez, was brought in to fix a long-standing back end pitching problem — closing out games.
K-Rod has recorded 39 saves and is performing much as he did for the Anaheim Angels back when they captured the 2002 World Series.
Roenicke confirmed that Garza and Rodriguez were just what the doctor ordered for his something’s-missing mound staff.
“Yeah, I think anytime you get good veterans who are quality guys, you’re gonna help your team,” Roenicke offered.
The improved pitching has relaxed the hitters, no longer do they feel pressure to score six or seven runs if Milwaukee is to win.
“Absolutely,” Roenicke confirmed. “And it works both ways, too.
“The pitchers know that if they can just keep us in the game, that there’s a good chance we’re gonna do some things and get ahead,” said Ron.
“It’s a nice feeling.”
But there’s more to the Brewers’ turnaround than just improved pitching resulting in a more desirable balance between plate and mound performance.
“Sometimes,” offered the speedy ballhawk Gomez, “you win a game running the bases or making a good catch in the outfield, not just by swinging the bat good. We definitely have a good defensive team.
“It’s about finding a way to help put your team in a position to win.”
Garza concurred, saying: “We all try to do our piece — no more, no less than we’re supposed to do.
“We understand what our roles are.”
Even veteran Brewers expressed excitement when asked if they’re jazzed about being the playoff hunt.
“Absolutely,” first sacker Lyle Overbay told MAS emphatically. “You’re not looking forward to the offseason; you’re looking forward to the postseason.
“Once you get a taste of that playoff atmosphere, that’s all you strive for.”
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” added second baseman Rickie Weeks. “We’re glad to be back in first place and playing good baseball.”
Weeks, one of the few holdovers from the Prince Fielder-CC Sabathia-led Brewer ball clubs that made the postseason awhile back, said he tries to show the youngsters what it takes to get to the playoffs rather than tell them.
“I try to lead by example — come to the ballpark and work hard everyday and play the game with a certain attitude,” Rickie explained.
“In baseball, it’s a marathon season — you’ve gotta stay on an even keel and try to be consistent.”
With the vets showing the way, the Brewers seem to be in a good place right now.
“I think the biggest thing,” opined Weeks, “is getting that camaraderie in the clubhouse. And I think we have it.
“I just hope it lasts.”
If only those spoilsport Cubbies would have had just a little more camaraderie last year.
Contact Man About Sports: firstname.lastname@example.org