Still in hunt, Brewers remain confident
Recent skid doesn't deter hopes of first postseason in 26 years
MILWAUKEE -- Brewers closer Salomon Torres plays for a team that has trailed in the National League Central standings for months and hasn't been to the postseason in 26 years.
Still, before the Brewers hit the road for Philadelphia last week, Torres was not backing down from his bold prediction.
"My promise still stands that we are going to get the Cubs," Torres said. "I'm sticking by that."
His attitude must surely have changed over the weekend, when the Brewers lost all four games in Philadelphia. They are eight games behind the Cubs in the National League Central, fell into a tie atop the NL Wild Card with the Phillies and then dismissed their manager in a stunning move Monday afternoon.
Then it was off to Chicago for what was supposed to be a key series under interim manager Dale Sveum. Torres didn't worry that his "We're going to catch you" comments would give the Cubs bulletin board material.
"I don't think they need any motivation at all," Torres said. "If they need my comments to motivate them, it might backfire on them. It's about strategy, and it's about out-pitching and out-hitting the opponent. I'm very confident."
That's where the Brewers stand. Still confident despite their recent slide, and, if you ask some opponents -- the St. Louis Cardinals have been particularly offended -- cocky.
But how did they get here?
That story began last July and August, when the Brewers swooned after the All-Star break and frittered away a division lead that had grown as wide as 8 1/2 games, the biggest cushion in franchise history. The Brewers rallied for a 16-12 September but finished two games behind the division-winning Cubs in 2007 and missed the postseason for the 25th consecutive season.
General manager Doug Melvin spent his winter mostly stockpiling veterans. He added free agent Jason Kendall to catch, even though Kendall was coming off the worst offensive and defensive season of his career. He signed Mike Cameron to man center field, even though Cameron faced a 25-game suspension to start the season and was a free-swinger, something Milwaukee already had aplenty. He signed free agent David Riske after a fabulous 2007 season and traded for relievers Guillermo Mota and Torres, even though both were coming off subpar years. And he signed Eric Gagne to close, even though Gagne had just pitched brutally poor after a 2007 trade from Texas to Boston.
Most of those choices have paid off. Gagne was a bust as the Brewers' closer, then injured his shoulder and lost the job to Torres. Riske has also been bothered by injuries, but Mota has emerged as the Brewers' most reliable setup man. Kendall has thrown out nearly 40 percent of would-be basestealers and has started 137 of the Brewers' 150 games because pitchers are so comfortable with him behind the plate. Cameron has a strikeout for every 3.2 at-bats but also has hit 25 home runs while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field.
Ned Yost, who managed the Brewers for six seasons before he was let go Monday, thought the impact was felt off the field, too. Cameron in particular has been a clubhouse presence and was the veteran who stepped in after Fielder and pitcher Manny Parra went at it during a well-publicized dugout scuffle in August.
"It's everything," Yost said last month. "It's the experience of being through it a number of times and helping younger guys. A guy will come in and you're ready to fry an egg on his head and you look two minutes later, and they're laughing. That's what veterans do. They calm things. There's nothing better than having your teammate right there that's battling with you."
They had to battle early this season. Unlike last year, when the Brewers owned the best record in baseball in mid-May at 24-10, this year they started 20-24 and were last in the six-team NL Central after being swept by Boston on May 17-18.
That's when reigning NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun, three days removed from signing a seven-year contract extension, spoke up for the first time.
"I almost felt in this series that we didn't expect to win," Braun said after the Red Sox finished a three-game sweep. "I felt like we were competing and I know everybody tried hard, but it's not about trying hard. You have to go out there and expect to win, and I almost feel like we didn't expect to win any of these games. I just felt like that.
"We have to figure it out, and we have to figure it out in a hurry. We're better than that. We're certainly talented enough to win games, but a lot of it is our approach mentally, [which] sometimes has to improve."
It suddenly did seem to improve. The Brewers won 12 of their next 16 games, went 16-10 in June, 16-11 in July and 20-7 in August to take a commanding lead in the NL Wild Card standings. They entered September with a 5 1/2-game lead in that department, but it slipped away with four straight losses to the Phillies.
Braun helped momentarily turn things around but so did a Brewers pitching staff that took a huge hit in early May when right-hander Yovani Gallardo was lost for the year to a knee injury. But the rotation was bolstered and then some on July 7, when the Brewers finished a trade that sent a package headlined by top hitting prospect Matt LaPorta to Cleveland for reigning American League Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia.
It was the biggest midseason trade in Brewers history, and the team hoped it had the same impact that the August 1982 pickup of veteran Don Sutton. Sutton helped pitch the Brewers to the World Series that year.
"We're going for it," Melvin said while introducing Sabathia.
Sabathia has done his part, going 9-0 in 13 starts. The Brewers have won 12 of those games and will look to win another on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field.
Gallardo is working back from his injury but is a long shot to pitch again down the stretch. So the Brewers will continue to ride a rotation of Sabathia, Sheets, 25-year-old Parra, Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan.
Now, if they can just get the offense going.
"We know we're good," Cameron said. "But that doesn't mean it's going to happen. You try to make it happen every day, but all in all you can't worry about it too much. You try to improve on things you haven't been doing well and continue to grind. ... [Even though] the month changed, it's still baseball."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.