Happy delirium reigns at Miller Park
MILWAUKEE -- After a wait of 29 years, a division championship arrived like a group old friends; friends bearing good tidings and bringing their own beer.
For the first time since 1982 the Milwaukee Brewers have become division winners. That is the primary thing that emerged from the happy delirium of Miller Park Friday night. The other thing that came out of this evening was that Francisco Rodriguez can say whatever he wants, whenever he wants, in Milwaukee for the rest of his life.
The Brewers clinched the National League Central with a unique combination. They did what they had to do, defeating the Florida Marlins, 4-1. And then with a lot of help from their very temporary friends, the Chicago Cubs, the final distance was covered.
After defeating the Marlins, the Brewers watched the last 1 1/2 innings of the Cubs beating the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-1, first on the scoreboard. Then, as the Cardinals' chances dwindled to the final outs, the Brewers retired to their clubhouse, and when Nick Punto's groundout ended St. Louis's hopes, the Brewers had an explosion of joy mixed liberally with significant quantities of sprayed champagne.
The Brewers' last division title was sufficiently removed from the present in that it happened in another league. But the people here demonstrated patience and loyalty and a kind of self-deprecating collective humor about the whole deal. When baseball's smallest media market draws three million fans three times in the last four seasons, you know you have a highly-motivated baseball public on hand.
This clinching victory featured the usual elements -- a strong starting performance, this one from Yovani Gallardo, who would make a fine candidate to pitch the opener of a Division Series. By striking out 11 Marlins in 7 1/3 innings, Gallardo became the first pitcher in franchise history to strike out more than 200 batters in three different seasons. Gallardo, 25, made this achievement even more remarkable by recording those 200-plus strikeouts campaigns in three straight seasons.
The run production came from the usual people. Prince Fielder had a solo homer in the second. Ryan Braun hit the game-winner, a three-run shot in the eighth, and further burnished his MVP credentials with a sensational catch in the fifth in which he turned a Florida threat into an inning-ending double play.
But this game turned for keeps in the top of the eighth, before Braun's homer. A single and an error put Gallardo in jeopardy with two on, one out, in a 1-1 tie. In came Francisco Rodriguez from the bullpen. Rodriguez had raised some local eyebrows and maybe even elevated a few local tempers by recently saying that he, a closer by profession, was not happy with his role with the Brewers, that of a mere eighth-inning setup man. Rodriguez further complained that he had been misled by management about getting save opportunities.
Circumstances indicate that whatever plans might have existed to give Rodriquez some save opportunities after he was obtained on July 12 were probably altered by the performance of the incumbent closer, John Axford. With his save against the Marlins Friday night, Axford has now successfully converted 41 straight save opportunities.
In this most clutch situation, eighth inning or not, Rodriguez struck out power hitters Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison to end the threat and shift the game's momentum toward the Brewers. This was the work of a man who holds the single-season save record, a man who, as a rookie, played a large role in the Angels' postseason run to the World Series championship in 2002.
It didn't matter that this was eighth inning, not the ninth. "No, it did not, definitely," Rodriguez said with a smile. "I knew I had to go for two strikeouts. I could not give them the opportunity to put the ball in play.
"My job was to get the ball to 'Ax.'"
At this point, the questioning of Rodriguez was interrupted by pitching coach Rick Kranitz dousing him with champagne, a classic direct hit. Rodriguez recovered nicely, wiping his eyes, catching his breath and moving on with the narrative.
"That's the type of moment," he said of the eighth-inning appearance, "that every time I'm in the bullpen, that's what I pray for, to come into that kind of situation and get it done."
And so, the lasting Milwaukee image of Francisco Rodriguez changed from a guy who should have kept quiet to a man who did his job when the team needed him the most. He will likely move elsewhere next season to resume his closer's career, but he will be recalled here as a candid man, who said what he thought and who could be counted upon at the most difficult moment.
Ron Roenicke, a rookie Major League manager, but a postseason veteran as a coach with the Angels, has had a stellar first season at the helm. In any other year, he could be a snap choice as NL Manager of the Year, but this season, with the worst-to-first rise of the Arizona Diamondbacks, that award may go to Kirk Gibson. Roenicke stayed in character after this triumph, deflecting all manner of credit.
"These guys made it easy for me," he said. Although it often wasn't easy, the sentiment was sincere.
Utility infielder Craig Counsell, a native of Milwaukee, recalled that the last time the Brewers won a division, he was in sixth grade. Now, he's 41.
"It seems like a long time," Counsell said, and in many ways it has been. Counsell won two World Series, one with Florida, one with Arizona, but he has returned to Milwaukee in hopes of going to the World Series with his hometown team.
Since 1982, the Brewers had only one other postseason appearance, as a Wild Card team in 2008. This is a far better Milwaukee team than that one, largely on the quality and depth of its pitching. A first World Series for Milwaukee in 29 years might still be an uphill climb. But now, that possibility has grown from a distant hope to a real opportunity, one that the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers have earned.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist with MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.