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12/26/11 11:20 AM EST

Crew's banner year ends with a bombshell

MILWAUKEE -- A banner year on the field ended with an off-the-field bombshell, as fans and club officials alike awaited word as to whether National League MVP Ryan Braun would be in the starting lineup on 2012 Opening Day or beginning a 50-game suspension.

The Braun saga marked an unfitting end to an otherwise memorable season that saw the Brewers solve their starting rotation, set a franchise record for regular-season wins and play to within two wins of the World Series. They fell just short, losing a six-game NL Championship Series to the eventual World Series champion Cardinals.

Following are the five biggest storylines from the best Brew since '82:

5. Tony Plush

Who knew what Brewers fans were in for when, four days before the season opener, general manager Doug Melvin traded for outfielder Nyjer Morgan?

Milwaukee, meet Tony Plush.

Six months later, Morgan/Plush delivered the hit that sent the Brewers to the NLCS, a 10th-inning single in Game 5 of the Division Series against the D-backs that turned Miller Park into one big keg party. Morgan's big hit came after he'd batted .304 in the regular season, took over from Carlos Gomez as the primary center fielder, and joined Braun and Prince Fielder on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Oh yeah, he also provided a series of entertaining postgame interviews as his alter ego, Plush, that made him a fan favorite.

Other personalities emerged throughout the season. There was Tony Gumbel, Morgan's choice for serious moments in postgame interviews. There was Tony Tombstone, conjured by third baseman Casey McGehee the day the Brewers dressed as cowboys for a flight from Houston to St. Louis. There was Tony Hush, who appeared when Morgan declined to discuss a dust-up with Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter a few days later.

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Then there was Tony Clutch, whom Braun created after Morgan's two-run single amid a five-run rally in Game 2 of the NLDS. Tony Clutch came through again in Game 5 a few days later, giving the Brewers their first postseason series win in 29 years.

4. Melvin bats 1.000

Consider the GM's Major League trades from the start of the 2010 Winter Meetings through July's non-waiver Trade Deadline:

• Acquired Shaun Marcum from the Blue Jays for top prospect Brett Lawrie

• Acquired Zack Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt from the Royals for four prospects: pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress, shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain

• Acquired pitcher Sergio Mitre from the Yankees for outfielder Chris Dickerson.

• Acquired Morgan from the Nationals for Minor Leaguer Cutter Dykstra

• Acquired Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets for two players to be named

• Acquired infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. from the Nationals for Minor Leaguer Erik Komatsu

That's a pretty good list. Of the pickups, only Mitre washed out -- but the deal remained significant because it opened a spot for Morgan. Lawrie and Escobar sure would look good on the left side of the infield right now, but Marcum and Greinke were necessary adds to a rotation that had spoiled previous seasons. Rodriguez essentially gave the Brewers co-closers. Hairston helped fill in all over the diamond, then emerged as the everyday third baseman in the postseason.

3. Fielder, farewell

Fielder left Milwaukee with his head held high, having batted .299 with 38 homers, 120 RBIs and more walks (107) than strikeouts (a career-low 106). He ranked in Major League Baseball's top five in homers, RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. He started all 162 games.

Now he's gone. Fielder, Milwaukee's first-round Draft pick in 2002, is a free agent for the first time, and Melvin has conceded that he does not fit into the club's plans for next season. Any faint hope of a return was dashed when the team signed free-agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez last week.

In the moments after the Brewers were eliminated in the postseason, Braun and Fielder, who produced on a historic level over five seasons batting back-to-back, shared a hug in a hallway off the main clubhouse.

"He is one of the greatest players in franchise history, one of the best teammates in the league, an incredible competitor," Braun said. "I'm proud that I was able to be teammates to him for about five years."

2. Braun

It was the best year of Braun's baseball life, and the worst.

Three weeks into the season, the Brewers and their home-grown slugger agreed to a stunning contract extension that positioned Braun to be this generation's Robin Yount. The agreement added five years and an additional $105 million to his existing long-term deal, and Brewers officials said that it was Braun's idea, quietly proposed in Spring Training.

"The first thing you say is, 'Wow, really?'" principal owner Mark Attanasio said. "Especially with a player of his stature. It's a very big idea."

Braun responded with a very big season, batting .332 with 33 home runs, 111 RBIs and 33 stolen bases to become the Brewers' first 30/30 player since 1970.

And after becoming the first Brewer to win the MVP Award since Yount won for the second time in 1989, he said he was "living the dream."

That changed only a few weeks later, when ESPN reported that Braun faced a 50-game suspension after a failing a test under MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Policy. A source insisted to MLB.com the next day that Braun, who has been very outspoken against the use of performance-enhancing drugs, did not test positive for a PED or steroid, and that the result was unique in the MLB testing program. Braun is appealing his suspension. and a resolution is expected next month.

Braun indicated that he is anxious to tell his side of the story, texting the night the news broke, "I would love to talk, but unfortunately, I'm not really allowed to say anything right now. My day will come soon, though."

1. 101 wins

The Brewers started 0-4 under rookie manager Ron Roenicke and were 14-20 on May 8, when prized newcomer Greinke was just returning from the ribcage injury he sustained in a Spring Training basketball game. The next night, Greinke won his Miller Park debut, and the Brewers were off to the races.

Milwaukee went 80-46 the rest of the way to win the NL Central, its first division crown since 1982. The 96 regular-season wins set a franchise record, and, including the postseason, the 2011 Brewers matched another record with 101 wins overall.

"The fans deserve this, because they haven't seen it since '82," Fielder said after the Brewers advanced to the NLCS. "I'm just glad we could make them happy."

Braun and Fielder had huge seasons, but this was a team paced by its pitching. The Brewers won all 15 of Greinke's Miller Park starts, and he combined with fellow rotation newcomer Marcum for 29 wins and a 3.67 ERA. Yovani Gallardo won 17 games and topped 200 strikeouts for the third straight season. John Axford, in his first full season as closer, set a club record with 46 saves, and combined in the second half with LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito and Rodriguez to lock down the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.