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MILWAUKEE -- A dugout scuffle in early June seemed to spark the Chicago Cubs. Could the same happen in early August to the team that now narrowly trails them?
That was the hope Thursday of Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who spent 45 minutes in the clubhouse with assistant general manager Gord Ash and manager Ned Yost following a 12-4 loss to the Mets at Miller Park. Melvin wanted answers about a seventh-inning dugout scuffle that came just after the Mets tacked on three runs against reliever Carlos Villanueva and sent the sliding Brewers on the way to their fourth consecutive series loss.
The Brewers (58-51) remained mere percentage points behind the Cubs (57-50) in the National League Central after Chicago lost at Wrigley Field.
On the field at Miller Park in front of another sellout crowd, Corey Hart hit two home runs, drove in three and twice tied the game for starter Chris Capuano (5-8), who surrendered a two-run, inside-the-park home run to Damion Easley in the sixth inning that put the Mets ahead for good. But Melvin was more interested to learn what happened off
"You can look at it this way: I'm glad to see there's some life down there," said Melvin, whose club held an 8 1/2-game lead in the NL Central as recently as June 24, but now is in a virtual dead heat with the Cubs.
"We get frustrated in the front office. Ned gets frustrated. It's good to see that [players] get frustrated, too. Are they frustrated with themselves? Are they frustrated with the team? Are they frustrated with the front office? That's what I want to find out.
"But I've been here before," Melvin added, "and it's no big deal."
The skirmish happened at the end of a tunnel that connects the dugout to the home clubhouse and was captured by the Mets' television crew. It was a confusing jumble of players and coaches that apparently started with a confrontation involving Yost and catcher Johnny Estrada and continued between Yost and infielder Tony Graffanino. In both instances, other players and coaches, including pitching coach Mike Maddux and bench coach Dale Sveum, served as shields to keep things from escalating further.
Asked to explain what happened in the seventh inning, Estrada refused comment to MLB.com while he gruffly walked down a hallway off-limits to reporters.
Later, Estrada, who has been candid about the disagreements he had last season with Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin and general manager Josh Byrnes, sent word through a club official that he would not be talking. The Brewers acquired Estrada last November.
Yost only spoke for a minute and a half after the game.
"I think there was some frustration expressed on a number of different sides about our style of play and about the way we've been playing," the manager said. "We handled it and took care of it, like good teams do."
Melvin apparently was satisfied of that fact. He said he did not speak to any players after the game, and that no disciplinary action would be handed down to any parties involved.
The Brewers fell to 0-13 in Capuano's starts since May 7, and he fell to 0-8 with a 6.27 ERA in those games after surrendering a season-high 10 hits and five earned runs in six innings. Capuano did strike out eight batters, and said afterward that he was not hung up on his long losing streak.
"I'm not thinking about that," Capuano said.
The game was still within reach at 5-3 when Villanueva came on for the seventh. He was coming off a scoreless appearance in Tuesday's series opener, but after allowing three runs in two-thirds of an inning on Thursday, Villanueva's ERA since the All-Star break jumped to 10.80.
"Maybe it's a wake-up call for all of us. We have to turn things around and finish strong. We don't have to panic. We're right there."
-- Carlos Villanueva
Mets relief pitcher Jorge Sosa delivered the final run of the inning with a line-drive double to left-center field. Minutes after Brian Shouse replaced Villanueva and recorded the final out, players tangled in Milwaukee's dugout.
Villanueva said he was not involved, that he was up in the clubhouse beginning his usual post-outing exercises. He took responsibility for his mistakes and insisted that his relationship with Estrada was strong.
"Maybe it's a wake-up call for all of us," Villanueva said. "We have to turn things around and finish strong. We don't have to panic. We're right there."
The skirmish happened in front of 41,704 fans -- the 22nd sellout this season at Miller Park and the seventh straight. And it also happened in front of thousands of viewers watching the Mets and Brewers TV broadcasts.
Yet many Brewers said nothing happened at all. They included Ben Sheets, whom cameras nonetheless caught right in the middle of the action. Geoff Jenkins, who is the longest-tenured player on the team, said, "I don't know anything about it."
"We have a lot of baby showers, a lot of birthday parties [for] kids on the team, [so we] were disagreeing about what gifts we should get," Graffanino said. "It's fine. We're fine. Everything's good."
Is the pressure of the pennant race getting to the team?
"No. We're not playing the way we're capable of playing, and that's what it boils down to," Graffanino said. "That's all it boils down to. We've said it all along, if we play like this, then what do we deserve? If we play the way we're capable of playing, then we'll see."
Said center fielder Bill Hall: "I'm sure that nine out of 10 people are going to say that this is the same thing that happened to the Cubs. It's not about that."
Hall was referring to a June 1 incident at Wrigley Field between Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano and catcher Michael Barrett, the latter of whom eventually was traded. Since that day, the Cubs are 35-20, and on Wednesday, they moved percentage points ahead of the Brewers in the division.
"Every time we turn around, we're getting a question about the Cubs or how we're feeling," Hall said. "Every time we turn on the TV, it's how well the Cubs are playing. We want to go out and win. It's all about winning ballgames. Whether the Cubs are on us or not, there would still be frustration. It's something you have to learn how to control."
The Mets promoted right-hander Brian Lawrence (1-0) from Triple-A before the game and he allowed three runs on eight hits in five innings, just long enough to notch the win.
The Brewers will have to rebound this weekend against another contending team. The Phillies will be at Miller Park on Friday night for the opener of a three-game series, and the Brewers are once again expecting near-capacity crowds.
"If we continue to play the way we're playing, it doesn't really matter what anybody else does -- we're in trouble," rookie third baseman Ryan Braun said. "So we've got to play better."