12/26/09 10:00 AM EST
Plenty of positives highlight Crew's 2009
Injuries hamper efforts, but club makes strides during season
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
The Brewers began the year with a bang by agreeing to terms with closer Trevor Hoffman, baseball's all-time saves leader, on a one-year deal. A day later, he told MLB.com's Barry Bloom that "it was time to move on," and the Brewers officially announced the deal on Jan. 13.A week later the team took care of one of its own, inking first baseman Prince Fielder to a two-year contract that ensured both sides will avoid the sometimes-sticky arbitration process for two of Fielder's three years of eligibility.
"It's a load-off for me," Fielder said before the Brewers Winter Warm-Up, a variety-style show hosted by radio broadcaster Bob Uecker.February: On Feb. 5, an answer emerged to one of the winter's most puzzling questions: Why couldn't the National League's reigning All-Star Game starter find a job? The answer was that Ben Sheets needed surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon and his former employers were left to pick up the tab for the procedure. Sheets would not pitch at all in 2009. Mere days before pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training, the Brewers found the final piece of their starting rotation in right-hander Braden Looper, who signed a one-year contract. It was a natural fit for Looper, who had just adopted a baby girl from China and makes his year-round home in the suburbs of Chicago. Speaking of the starting rotation, new Brewers manager Ken Macha made his first debatable decision on Feb. 17, when he said that budding ace Yovani Gallardo wouldn't start on Opening Day.
"I don't want him going out there thinking he has to throw a shutout every game and know you're facing [Tim] Lincecum and [Jake] Peavy and [Carlos] Zambrano, guys like that," Macha said.Outfielder Ryan Braun was among six Brewers -- but the lone American -- included on the final rosters for the second World Baseball Classic. The others were pitcher Mark DiFelice and catcher Vinny Rottino (Italy), outfielder Adam Stern and infielder Brett Lawrie (Canada) and pitcher David Welch (Australia). March: The start of exhibition games had Braun thinking of how far he had come in the two years since his first big league camp, just as outfield prospect Lorenzo Cain was getting his first taste. It was clear by March 6 that Eric Gagne wasn't going to succeed in his comeback bid with the Brewers. Gagne was a surprise Minor League signing in mid-February, but developed shoulder soreness and would end up pitching in an Independent League in 2009. Injuries struck the team in March, when Hoffman, Looper and center fielder Mike Cameron were beset by rib-cage strains. Hoffman's tweak was the most troubling, and it sent him to the disabled list for the start of the season. Carlos Villanueva was picked to fill-in until Hoffman returned. April: With the roster set, the Brewers headed to San Francisco for the start of their 41st season as a franchise. Jeff Suppan struggled in an Opening Day loss, but Gallardo was brilliant on Day 2, when he tossed 6 2/3 strong innings and hit a decisive, three-run home run to beat Randy Johnson and the Giants. Gallardo made history as the only pitcher ever to hit a home run off Johnson. Meanwhile, the pitcher selected one round ahead of Gallardo in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, Mark Rogers, took the mound for Class A Brevard County in his first outing in more than two years. Rogers had been sidelined by shoulder injuries, but a healthy 2009 would put him back on the radar for Milwaukee. The Brewers' April 13 game against the Cubs ranked high on the team's list of ugly losses in 2009. Suppan and reliever Jorge Julio tied a modern Major League record when they combined for four bases-loaded walks in the fourth inning, and the Cubs pulled away for an 8-5 win in front of 40,168 at Miller Park, plus a national-television audience that tuned in for Milwaukee's first Sunday night game in 12 years. Suppan's early-season struggles would prompt the team to push back his next start. The baseball world was saddened by the April 13 passing of legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas. Colleague Uecker and childhood Phillies fans Dave Bush and DiFelice were among the Brewers to express sympathy. Early April was not particularly kind to the Brewers, so Corey Hart and J.J. Hardy dyed their hair black for good luck. The stars seemed aligned for Bush on April 23, when he worked to within five outs of a no-hitter in Philadelphia. Former Brewer Matt Stairs denied Bush's bid when he clanked a home run off the right-field foul pole with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning. Instead of celebrating Milwaukee's first no-hitter since Juan Nieves' gem 22 years ago, Bush and the Brewers celebrated a 6-1 win at Citizens Bank Park and their first back-to-back wins this season. "It's a lot more fun than getting your butt beat," Bush said. "Giving up line drives all over the place is not fun. This was a situation where I was able to kind of control the game and throw a lot of strikes, and those are the games that are fun to pitch."
A prospect did accomplish the feat about a week later, when right-hander Evan Anundsen threw a no-hitter for Class A Brevard County. Outfielder Logan Schafer, who would go on to be the organization's Minor League player of the year, drove in the game's only run in the eighth inning.Back from the DL, Hoffman made his Brewers debut with a scoreless inning on April 27, then picked up his first Brewers save the next night with "Hells Bells" blasting through Miller Park. Brewers hitters couldn't help Gallardo on April 29, so Gallardo helped himself. The 23-year-old pitcher set a career-high with 11 strikeouts in eight brilliant innings, and he hit a seventh-inning home run for a 1-0 win over the Pirates to finish a three-game sweep. Gallardo became the first pitcher to homer in a 1-0 win since Odalis Perez did it for the Dodgers vs. the D-backs on Aug. 28, 2002. May: The Brewers beat the Pirates in dramatic fashion on May 5, when Braun arrived from the airport (he had his balky back checked in Milwaukee that morning) to deliver a tying pinch-hit and Rickie Weeks pounded a game-winning home run. Third-base prospect Mat Gamel was promoted on May 13 and faced the challenge of producing off the bench. Devastating news on May 18, when the Brewers learned that Weeks would miss the rest of the season with a right-wrist injury. It cut short a promising season; Weeks was a bona fide All-Star candidate, who was batting .272 with a .340 on-base percentage. At the time, Weeks was tied with Fielder for the team lead with nine home runs, and he was tied with Hart for the lead in runs scored with 28. "It's just very, very disappointing for [Weeks] personally, putting the team aside," general manager Doug Melvin said. "I have a lot of favorite players, and he's one of them for me, just because how he goes about his business." June: Hoffman was rewarded for his scoreless month when he was named the National League's Pitcher of the Month for May. He was also named "Delivery Man of the Month." Another costly injury came next as Bush thought he was OK after being struck near the right elbow by a Hanley Ramirez line drive in Florida on June 4, but the aftereffects of that blow would eventually land Bush on the DL and ruin his season. The Brewers took Indiana University right-hander Eric Arnett with their first pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft after getting a positive scouting report of Arnett's make-up from Indiana hoops coach Tom Crean. Arnett signed three days later and received a $1.2 million bonus. New amateur scouting director Bruce Seid seemed to focus on collegians in his first year in charge. At the big league level, the Brewers were struggling, and Melvin showed he meant business on June 13 when he demoted left-hander Manny Parra to Triple-A Nashville. "I know what kind of pitcher I am, and I haven't been pitching well at all," Parra said. "The numbers don't lie. I haven't pitched the way I'm capable of pitching." After making 18 scoreless appearances to begin his Brewers career, Hoffman finally surrendered some runs on June 14, and they were costly, coming in a 5-4 Interleague loss to the White Sox. Fellow reliever Mitch Stetter recorded 15 consecutive outs via strikeout before Minnesota's Jason Kubel lifted a flyout in another Interleague Game on June 25. As the month ended, the Brewers were still feeling good about a return trip to the postseason. Casey McGehee atoned for a costly error in the top of the sixth inning with a go-ahead grand slam in the bottom of the frame, and the Brewers finished June with sole possession of first place in the National League Central. July: The Brewers fell out of first after July 4, and after dropping three of four games at Chicago's Wrigley Field, Braun called on the front office to find some help for the starting rotation. "We're at the point right now where it would be important for us to go out there and acquire somebody," Braun said. Melvin made it clear he didn't appreciate a player telling him to do his job, but the men cleared the air after the team returned to Miller Park.
"Doug and I are cool," Braun said.Parra was excellent in his return from the Minors on July 7, when he worked seven scoreless innings against the Cardinals. All that was missing was the, 'W.'" Braun and Fielder were named to the NL All-Star team on Selection Sunday, and Hoffman joined a week later as a substitute for injured Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton. Braun started his second straight All-Star Game, but Fielder stole the show by winning the State Farm Home Run Derby. The Brewers made their major Trade Deadline pick-up two weeks early, acquiring infielder Felipe Lopez from the D-backs for a pair of prospects. Lopez collected four hits and reached base five times in his Brewers debut, a harbinger of his solid second half for Milwaukee. The team also added reliever Claudio Vargas in a deadline-day trade with the Dodgers. Hoffman returned to San Diego for the first time since departing as a free agent. He pitched in a non-save situation in the series finale. August Hart thought he had a stomach ache from some bad seafood. Instead, he had his appendix removed on Aug. 2 and would miss the rest of the month. Hart was still in the hospital when Fielder tried to storm into the Dodgers' clubhouse on Aug. 4 after L.A. handed Milwaukee a 17-4 loss. Fielder wasn't happy about what he viewed as an intentional plunking from former teammate Guillermo Mota. Major League Baseball investigated and ultimately fined both players. Fielder refused to talk about the incident. The Brewers traded for Reds reliever David Weathers on Aug. 9 to help a worn-out bullpen. Melvin decided it was time for a major shake-up on Aug. 12, so he fired pitching coach Bill Castro, designated slumping infielder Bill Hall for assignment and demoted Hardy to Triple-A Nashville. The timing of Hardy's demotion pushed his free-agent eligibility back one full year, and it also opened shortstop for top prospect Alcides Escobar. Hardy said he wasn't entirely surprised by the demotion. Hall and at least a small portion of his hefty contract was traded to Seattle on Aug. 19 for a low-level reliever. September Former Brewers All-Star Chris Capuano took a big step in his recovery from a second Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery when he debuted for rookie-level Helena on Sept. 1. It was the first of three successful outings at Helena for Capuano, who has since signed a Minor League deal with the Brewers for 2010. Up in the big leagues, the Brewers announced on Sept. 2 that they would top three million tickets sold for the second straight season. Cameron took time to reflect on becoming the 302nd player in Major League history to score 1,000 runs. Cameron said he would "make sacrifices" to return to the Brewers, but the team would go younger and cheaper via a trade with the Twins two months later. The fans who filled Miller Park on Sept. 6 might have seen the Brewers' best game of the year. Fielder's 12th-inning home run capped a 2-1 win over the Giants and a game that included a slew of defensive gems, including Milwaukee's first triple play in more than a decade. Fielder's celebration at home plate was certainly memorable. Fielder tied Cecil Cooper's Brewers record for RBIs in a season on Sept. 13 in Arizona, but would need another week to set a new mark. He notched RBI No. 127 with Cooper in the visitor's dugout at Miller Park, in his final days as Astros manager. Gallardo struck out seven Astros in his season finale on Sept. 20 to become the fourth Brewers pitcher to reach the 200-strikeout plateau. The Brewers decided to shut-down Gallardo early to protect his young arm. A Sept. 21 loss to the Cubs formally eliminated the Brewers from the division race. They were bounced from Wild Card contention the next day. October: A disappointing year ended on a high note for the Brewers in St. Louis. Braun homered in the penultimate game of the season, making him the fourth player in franchise history to reach 200 hits. In the finale, Fielder homered twice for an extra-inning win over the Cardinals and tied Philadelphia's Ryan Howard for baseball's RBI crown, with a franchise-record 141. Hoffman delivered good news after the game when he revealed he was close to a deal to return for 2010, and that contract was finalized the following day. Melvin hired a new pitching coach in Rick Peterson on Oct. 20 and Peterson discussed his philosophy. November: The Brewers traded Hardy to the Twins on Nov. 6 for center fielder Carlos Gomez in a deal that signaled the end of Cameron's tenure in Milwaukee and opened shortstop for top prospect Escobar. Braun became the first Brewers player since Paul Molitor, more than two decades ago, to win a Silver Slugger Award in consecutive seasons. Braun and Fielder both drew votes for the NL MVP Award, but fell short of Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. December: Melvin started handing out free-agent dollars in December, signing catcher Gregg Zaun, starter Randy Wolf and reliever LaTroy Hawkins to contracts that will pay about $15 million in 2010. Melvin also re-signed free-agent infielder Craig Counsell and reliever Vargas. Wolf's three-year, $29.75 million deal was finalized on Dec. 14, when the lefty insisted that he wasn't disappointed to leave his hometown Dodgers. Two days later, Hawkins' two-year, $7.5 million contract was set, and he talked about taking control of his own free-agent fate.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.