09/28/08 7:22 PM ET
All the right moves pay off for Brewers
Up-and-down season results in first playoff berth in 26 years
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
"My promise still stands that we are going to get the Cubs," Torres said in early September. "I'm sticking by that."
For that to still happen, both the Brewers and Cubs would have to advance to the National League Championship Series in October. But at least there's still a chance for Torres' words to ring true; he uttered them right in the middle of the Brewers' final month tailspin left them suddenly looking up at the Phillies and then the Mets in the NL Wild Card standings.
Along the way, Milwaukee dismissed its manager in a stunning move on Sept. 15, the day before what was supposed to be a key series between the Brewers and Cubs but turned into desperation time for Torres & Co. under manager Dale Sveum.
Somehow the Brewers persevered, and they earned a spot in the postseason for the first time in 26 years.That's where the Brewers stand. Still confident despite their rocky September, and, if you ask some opponents -- the St. Louis Cardinals have been particularly offended -- downright cocky.
But how did they get here?
That story began last July and August 2007, when the Brewers swooned after the All-Star break and frittered away an NL Central 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 they 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 offseason 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 the righty 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 138 of the Brewers' 151 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, 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 Prince Fielder and pitcher Manny Parra went at it during a well-publicized dugout scuffle in August.
"It's everything," Yost said in August. "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 from Sept. 11-14.
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 of the August 1982 pickup of veteran Don Sutton. Sutton helped pitch the Brewers to the World Series that year.
Sabathia has done his part, going 9-0 in his first 13 starts and then making a series of starts on short rest in September. "We're going for it," Melvin said when he introduced Sabathia.
They got it, at least in terms of a postseason spot.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.