Erector Arm

K stands for Caracas

K stands for Caracas

As a kid, the excitement of building something great with an Erector set was held with anticipation. Occasionally, one would build a crane which would carry products from one point to the next, just like the real things did. Then one morning, you came out to find out your brother had done something to which the dreams of building the perfect city would never come to be. The crane’s arm was hanging from a screw…limp and of no more use.

During the past month, K-Rod has come out of the bullpen, night after night, to save another win for the Brewers. The Cream City Nine has seen this before. A Canadian named Axford did it for some 40+ games before the ever present consistency was a thing of the past and all hope was lost. Now the pessimism of ‘when’ looms constantly as we see yet another tight game come down to the point where ‘K-arm’ is up in the bullpen, warming up hard to pinpoint his control on the outside corners before coming in again. It is not ‘how far can he go’. It is ‘when will it end’?

At 18-6 to begin with one of their better starts in their history, these malt and barley men are an interesting lot. A committee of veterans at first, a kid taking over for a vet at second, a miracle with a broken face at short, a heavy hitting veteran at third. A kid in left who is quietly performing within the excitement of the early season. A ball of energy and unpredictability in center…many consider the heart and soul of the ball club, with Braunschweiger in right with a bad thumb, a thing in his shoulder and the gas of millions of outraged fans in every opponents park yet still hitting and fielding like the best. Behind the plate there is the most underestimated catcher in the game with a backup who is now nicknamed ‘The Destroyer’ and a gaggle of starters who may or may not be reaching their peak all at the same time. Then K-Rod.

Francisco Rodriguez first poked his head into The Show in 2002 with the Angels, who were then proudly from Anaheim, for 5 innings and 13 strikeouts. He didn’t get his first save until the next season but on Saturday, in 14 innings so far this season in 24 games, he has 21 K’s and 11 saves. At this rate he will have 74 saves for the season and the Brewers will win 121 games.

Nope.

His arm will fall off.

But if it doesn’t, with the help of rosary beads everywhere, this is going to be a nail-biting, internal hemorrhaging season of all seasons. But there is one more obstacle ahead. It is called May.

The Milwaukee Brewers in the month of May is like Clark Kent sleeping on a bed of kryptonite. The month begins in Cincinnati then moves home for the perplexing D’Backs and for the first visit in nine years, with the kings of baseball visiting Miller Park. Then on the road with the Cubs, the carpetbaggers and Miami. Then home again with a rare visit from the Orioles and the near weekly confrontation with the Northsiders.

So, the Erector Arm and the Month of May. Hope takes a strange shape this season.

Play Ball!

Seven Come Twenty-Three

The dugout was tight, with jaws locked in the anticipation of pending doom. The relief pitching, the achilies of this season’s team, had just allowed three runs to put the Brewers behind 7-4 going into the 8th after leading 4-0. On the road, you don’t get the push from the home crowd, propelling you to the thrill of a rally to keep pennant hopes alive. From an improbable position of mediocrity, this Milwaukee team has been on a quest, since the All-Star break to do what no other team has done before…come back from 7 games below .500 and get a coveted Wild Card playoff spot.

The top of the 8th inning began like so many others had this year. Someone gets on and then another. Then up comes Nori Aoki to the plate. What is he going to do this time? Hammer it deep as he has been doing so many times during the later part of this season or will he lay down a bunt and fill the bases for the big boys that follow? #7 promptly slammed a double off the wall to drive in one run. Rickie Weeks (#23) followed and hammered a triple to left center to tie the score. Aramis Ramirez then delivered a single up the middle to drive in the go-ahead run and Milwaukee led, in an attempt to sweep the Pirates and move onto Washington for another series that would have its fans on the edge of their seats, wondering if the Boys from the Cream City could accomplish the impossible.

The trip this team has taken during the past three months has been remarkable and it has been led by the top of their order, Aoki and Weeks. Aoki has had four different 10+ game hitting streaks this season and is one of the reasons for the Brewers performance. As the lead off hitter, he has gotten on base 35.9% of the time. Hitting near .300, this six time batting champion in Japan really is the ‘hitting machine’ so many talked about earlier this spring when Milwaukee was looking for someone to fill an outfield position. He had to come over to Maryville, AZ, the site of the Brewers spring training facility, and basically give  an audition, like a musician trying to gain a spot in a major orchestra, in front of the Milwaukee brass to see what he could do. It’s little wonder that what they saw caused disbelief. Here was a master of the art of hitting, much like his hero, Ichiro. The entire field was his potential hitting target. Very few balls got by him at bat. When it came to having two strikes him, he got tougher at the plate. His impressive style, a bit strange for the fans of Miller Park, gave his manager the confidence to note aloud that he would be the team’s leading pinch hitter off the bench against left handed pitchers. Here was a left handed hitter who could pull off the art of being better than a right handed hitter when it came to hitting off of a left handed pitcher, a total alien view by baseball purists. But a pinch hitter? Here was a star of Japanese baseball, attempting to break into the Major Leagues and not being able to show his full potential as an every day player. In any language that had to be humbling.

As the season progressed, the Brewers found that Aoki was an exceptional fielder as well. The corners of their outfield was set for many seasons to come. Along with Braun in left, this team would have two .300 hitters at the corners.

Which brings us to Weeks. No player was hitting better than #23 was in 2011 when he earned an All-Star spot. But then came a near season ending injury when he stepped awkwardly on the first base bag trying to beat out a throw. He left a huge hole in the lineup and then came back too early in an attempt to contribute to a pennant drive. But Rickie was clearly under par. When this season began, Weeks could barely hit above his weight and struggled through the entire first half of the season. Credit the manager for keeping him in the lineup.

Then somewhere he found his stroke. During the last half of the season, he is hitting as well as he ever did. Batting behind Aoki, it gives the Brewers one of the most intimidating group of hitters deep into the entire order.

While Braun and Ramirez are the core of the power of the Milwaukee club, Aoki and Weeks are the table setters and are as good as any top of the order players in the Show.

The Brewers swept the Pirates with a 9-7 victory for their 24th victory in their last 28 games.

Then onto Washington to take on the top team in the National League. With 13 games to go, they were two games behind Cardinals for the final Wild Card spot. All they have to do is keep winning. To do that, #7 & #23 had to continue to do what they have been doing during this amazing stretch. In the 9th, they did exactly what you would expect from this team. Aoki got on, stole second and in a flurry of hits, the Crew took a 4-2 lead while Axford closed it out for their 26th victory in their last 30 games.

On Saturday, while Aoki threw out a runner at home plate, the team decided to take the day off as the Nationals tied up the series as rookie starter Wily Peralta just didn’t have it and Livan Hernandez daydreamed through an improbable fourth inning.

Now, with 11 games to go and the Brewers two games behind the Cardinals for the last Wild Card playoff spot, the game really begins. Hold onto your hats, sports fans. If they are to do it, Aoki and Weeks, #7 & #23 will show the way.

Play Ball!

If It’s Milwaukee, It Must Be Kielbasa

Doctors may say that the quickest way to solve a psychological condition is to eat. It’s comfort food time. It’s ‘get better’ time. It’s like ‘when the child is sick, give them some chicken soup’ kinda thing. The baseball team from the Cream City needs some chicken soup. Or….a Kielbasa.

This year the Brewers have had three major issues: 1. The psychological hurdle of AP;  2. The calamity of the Bullpen and #3. The problem of having an inexperienced manager at the helm.

The Psychological hurdle of AP

The Milwaukee Brewers this season are a team in transition, from the dynamic youthful bunch who came up through the farm system to AP, an era known as After Prince. For years, the Brewers have had great First Basemen. It all began with the popular Mike Hegan, a member of the original Seattle Pilots from whence the Brewers came. He carried on the Milwaukee tradition of big banging first sackers that was set in the days of the Braves with Joe Adcock/Frank Torre/Nippy Jones fame. George “Boomer” Scott followed up and set a new standard of banging the ball around the park, with his 36 home runs with 109 RBI in 1975 being the hallmark. Then St. Cecil of Cooper (32 home runs with 121 RBI and .313 batting average in 1982), the man who brought the Brewers into the 1982 World Series with one of the greatest clutch hits of all time to win the American League pennant over the California (nee Los Angeles, Anaheim, of Anaheim) Angels.

But the great first sackers didn’t stop there. John Jaha hit .300 with 34 home runs and 118 RBI in ’96. Richie Sexton is still legendary for hitting some of the longest home runs in the game hit 45 home runs in 2001 and 2003. Then came Lyle Overbay, who hit the cover off of the ball with more doubles (53 in 2004 while hitting .301) than any other Milwaukee first baseman before him or after. But he was just keeping the sack warm for the kid who everyone knew was the center of the first base universe storming up from the minors.

Prince Fielder was born to be a Milwaukee Brewer. He was everything a Milwaukee first baseman was all about. But Prince brought a new dimension to the game. He was an enthusiastic crusher with youth going for him. Here was the pillar of the young Brewers (50 home runs in 2007, 141 RBI and .299 batting average in 2009) and were everything the Milwaukee club was looking for ever since the great Robin Yount came up and spent the next 20 years making the Brewers a serious contender each and every year. He, along with Weeks and Hart came up through the ranks pounding the opposition with their youthful style and power (230 home runs as a Brewer). Prince was fun. Prince was the leader. Prince was the soul. Prince was the Man.

Then nothing.

If 2012 is remembered, it was for the silence of the void that was created when Prince left.

They wore Brewers on the front of their jerseys, but they simply were not the Milwaukee Brewers. Their Prince had left. Long live the Prince.

Then something very strange happened. Like the Autumn Spring, false hope gave way to a new and wonderous happening. The next ‘coming’ came and quickly went on the DL for the season. This created a nightmare of a lineup. But someone in the very mold of Adcock and Cooper moved into the outfield from his All-Star position in Right and after 2/3rds of the season, the Brewers began to look once again like the Milwaukee Brewers. Prince, for many diehards, was merely taking a vacation. And now Cory Hart took his position, not his place, but his position at first. Cory, long a favorite of the Keilbasa Krowd, began to hit the long ball once again, and did that crazy little shake of his hips to his teammates in the dugout when he banged a double time and time again.

With the help of the other corners, Aramis Ramirez at third, Norichika Aoki in right and of course Ryan Braun in left, along with the brilliant rookie catcher, Martin Maldonado, solid clutch hitting along with a couple of young rookie arms, brought back the excitement of the past few years where Milwaukee was averaging over 3 million fans at the gate. From way back, 14 1/2 to be exact, they began their move with an impressive sweep over the league leading Cincinnati Reds. Then came Houston.

The Calamity of the Bullpen

A microcosm of a season was in evidence in one single game this past Friday evening. Good fielding, good timely hitting. 24th blown save. K-Rod (Francisco Rodriguez) is finished. His $8.5 million isn’t worth the paper it is written on. John Axford is useless. If you cannot get a breaking ball over the plate, you are finished in The Show. After a tremendous seven innings pitched by rookie Mark Rogers, K-Rod came in and promptly served up a home run in the 8th inning to the lowly Astros. Then Axford’s walked the lead-off batter and flummoxed his was to the minors to lose the game in the 9th. The Houston Astros this season have NEVER had a walk-off hit before Axford showed up on a humid, air-conditioned evening before the big train on the wall of a ballpark. Axford became the Enron of Minute Maid.

The Problem of Having An Inexperienced Manager At The Helm

After the game, Ron Roenicke the Brewers manager, was downright lost for words. He visibly had lost all confidence in the team. He had visibly lost confidence in himself. Most important, it appeared that he didn’t have any answers. He appeared to be on the verge of tears. He knew he had not learned a thing from the past failures that the Brewers earned throughout this Season AP. Here was a guy who seemingly prides himself on following baseball’s crazy tradition of backing the veterans until their wheels fall off. Wake up, Scioscia’s puppet. The wheels have fallen off. They fell off when your silly decision to keep Cesar Izturis as a backup shortstop ended the progress Edwin Maysonet was making earlier in the season. The wheels fell off when you insisted K-Rod had something left in the tank. He doesn’t. It’s empty. (NOTE: He took arbitration because he couldn’t get anything close to what he was making with the Brewers.) They fell off when you continued to use Axford. Tell Milwaukee’s President of Baseball Operations and General Manager, Doug Melvin, John Axford needs to go back to the minors and work on getting his curve and screwball working again. It’s called ‘getting it over the plate’. He can get work on it down there and it won’t affect the big club’s record. Then take whatever you can get for K-Rod and save the last month’s salary for new hot water bottles for you to sit on or something. Anything but K-Rod.

You cannot fire this bullpen coach. You already did that as a miserable excuse for your inexperience in evaluating what was going on around you, Mr. Roenicke. When the fans in the stands begin to moan and get up to leave the ballpark when you walk out of the dugout and pull your ‘baseball veteran’ scam by taking out the starting pitcher and bring in the dynamic Blown Savers, you have to know, that we all know, you are going to a dry well. There is no more water in that well. It’s dry. That well dried up when the season began. You just didn’t believe it was dry because these two could still walk in from the bullpen. They are the ‘Walking Dead Arms’.

The Solution

It is time you faced the facts of the game in Milwaukee. When in doubt, eat a kielbasa. You need to understand the ‘Power of the K’. Do the honorable thing, Mr. Roenicke. Do what Max Surkont did. He ate himself out of The Show by dinning at those South side Milwaukee fans homes in the ’50s every night. That, plus a few of Milwaukee’s favorite brew, became his ticket out of baseball. But, let it be said that Big Max was more than just an expert on Polish sausages. He also was a bit of a linguist, a man of, one might say, unusual phrases. He once said, “Baseball was never meant to be taken seriously. If it were, we would play it with a javelin instead of a ball.”

So sayeth Max.

Eat, Mr. Roenicke. Don’t mess with the javelin. As they say on the South Side, ‘Eat them kielbasa and wash it down at the bubbler.’.  It is the honorable thing to do.

Then, when the urge comes to give that vet one more shot, forget it. Call in anyone except K-Rod or Axford. It is his time. And as you do that, just say, “Long Live Axford. He was the proverbial flash in the pan.”

Mr. Roenicke? Eat a Kielbasa! We will all be better for it.

Play Ball!

Romo-Them’s In The Land of Lombardi

It was to be a great series, the Philadelphia Phillies against the Milwaukee Brewers. At least that’s what most thought would happen in the City of Brotherly Love at the beginning of the season. Here were two teams loaded with pitching talent, ready to take on the world as a preliminary face-off of the National League Championships in October. That was not to be the case. The Brewers limped into Philadelphia fresh from a three game losing sweep by Cincinnati and trailed the Reds by 10 games in the loss column at the time. They were only moments away from unloading a bunch of talent because they couldn’t or wouldn’t keep them to make a run for the pennant.

There are some fundamental flaws in the team structure this year. The first baseman, Cory Hart, a right fielder who is just learning to play the position because the regular first baseman is on the DL for the season. The second baseman, Week’s, is not fielding nor hitting, two vital flaws in anyone’s game. The current shortstop-of-the-moment is playing because the starting shortstop is on the DL for the season. The third baseman, Aramis Ramirez is a doubles machine. He has 35 doubles this season and is one of the bright spots on the team. The left fielder (we call him Mr. Braun in the land of beer and sausage and, yes John…cheese curds), after a very difficult off-season, is playing better than he did last year when he won the league MVP. The center fielder (whoever plays that position) is missing in action. The right fielder, Aoki, is a huge surprise and playing above what anyone expected. The catcher, Maldonado, is also a wonderful surprise but he had to move over for the starting catcher (Lucroy) who came back Thursday from the DL (he had broken his hand when his wife dropped a suitcase on it during the Dodger series way back in June). And that leaves the pitching.

Want a migraine? Strangely, starting pitching has been fairly good of late for the Brewers (forgetting last night’s Wolf-mare). Now that may all change. So you want relief pitching? So do the Brew Crew. The relief pitching has been a disaster. They have lost at least 19 blown saves in games that were in the bag. Only Philadelphia in the National League have a worst blown save percentage (comparing this year to last year) than the Brewers. While the Phillies are -23.0 vs last year, Milwaukee is -18.3 in save percentage in 2011/save percentage in 2012 difference. Both Philadelphia and Milwaukee were playoff teams last year. The Phillies have a save percentage of 62.5% this season. Milwaukee has a miserable 52.9%. The major league average save percentage is 69% this season. You get the picture.

Then there is the hitting, or lack thereof. Only Braun is hitting above .300 (with a .313 batting average, a league leading 28 home runs and the second best RBI total with 70 and an OPS of 1.002. Aoki, who could win the Rookie of the Year honors, is hitting .280. The starting catcher, Maldonado, who came up from AAA Nashville after Lucroy went on the DL is hitting a respectable .272 while Ramirez is hitting .286 and an OPS of .845. That’s it. They are the only batters above .270. Hart is hitting a disappointing .260; Gomez who alternates in center field is hitting .244 while Morgan the other center fielder is at .228; the shortstop Izturis is at .220 while Rickie Weeks, former All-Star second baseman last season is struggling at .209. When your middle can’t hit, you will loose.

As for the ‘Fightn’s’, they were 15 games in the loss column behind the Eastern Division leading Washington Nationals. In order to get to the playoffs, they have to jump over four teams in their division. Only the Cubs, Padres, Rockies and Astros have lost more games this season. And these are the fearsome Philadelphia Phillies. These guys won the entire thing just a couple of seasons ago. So what happened? Milwaukee was swept again.

The twisting in the wind began after that last loss in Philly and before you could spell Greinke, he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for three minor leaguers quicker than you could spell Greinke’s wife’s former profession, that of a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader.

Of all that is holy, that just isn’t right. No, not that the Brewers got nothing in return for a front line pitcher but because his wife was one of Romo-them’s in the land of Lombardi. That would make any cheese head spit out a perfectly good bratwurst.

It’s been that kind of week. That kind of year. Only 62 regular season games left, boys and girls. Fourteen and one-half games out, ten under .500. Only six teams have lost more games in the National League this season.

There is a hint of a breeze beginning to blow from the North this year across Pigsville and Miller Valley, earlier than anticipated. Green is replacing Blue in the jerseys. What a horrible thought. And it isn’t even August yet.

If baseball is a game built upon hope and prayers, it is time to hit the kneelers, bring out the beads and say after me, “Hail Mary full of grace”.

Play Ball!

072912

Get Up. You Can’t Be That Tired!

Baseball must be an easy sport to play. Most of the time the players are just casually milling about on the field waiting for the next pitch. You play catch before the inning starts. Nothing too strenuous. There is an eight-in-nine chance that you will not be involved in the next play. You get to sit down when it is your team’s time to bat. The game lasts only a couple of hours a day, far less than playing a round of golf on even the busiest courses. Sure, you have to grab a bat and walk up to the on deck circle after coming from your comfy position in the dugout. You take a couple of swings. And when it is your turn to hit, you walk up to the batter’s box, take your position with a couple of practice swings and zero in on the pitcher…particularly the throwing hand of the pitcher. From that moment the game either speeds up enormously or slows down incredibly depending upon your comfort zone at that time as the stars line up with the movement of the earth and your familiarity with the pitcher. As Yogi said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”

Every player on the field is an exceptional athlete. They are one of only 800 people on the planet to be able to play in ‘The Show’ at one time. For the record, that is one of eight hundred out of 7.013 billion people on the planet.

The mind races faster. On Friday night for five hours and four minutes, the struggling Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs (both entered the game with identical 13 wins and 18 losses) held one of their ‘big rival’ marathons. The Brewers used 22 players out of 25 men on their roster. They even used one of their starting pitcher to pinch hit, Zack Greinke. Only Vonnie Gallardo, Shaun Marcum (who starts on Saturday) and Marco Estrada (who pitched the game before) were not used. If further pinch hitters had to be used, there is no doubt that Gallardo and Marcum could have been used as both are also good hitting pitchers.

There were a lot of Brewers in the ballpark on this night as the Cubs manager, Dale Sveum, along with former Brewer pitcher and now Cubs pitching coach, Chris Bosio, former Brewer rookie of the year, Cubs third base coach Pat Listach and former Brewer infielder and now Cubs bench coach, Jamie Quirk. Add to this, former Brewer manager, Del Crandall at 81 years of age was there as he was honored in the stadium as he was inducted as a member of the The Milwaukee Braves Hall of Fame earlier in day.

The Cubs used 21 of their players including all of the position players.The two clubs had only pitchers that were not used. This game, more than most, gave new meaning to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first, What’s on second. I don’t know’s on third. Why’s in left. Because is in center. Certainly is the catcher. I don’t give a darn is at short. Tomorrow is the pitcher.”

Cory Hart for the Brewers had 7 at bats, the last gave every one of the 40,097 a chance to go home as it was a single in the bottom of the 13th inning which gave the home team a victory with the bases loaded. Mark Concannon, the Brewers television field announcer interviewed the winning team’s hero for the night, Hart, with “Good morning.” It was after midnight.

Saturday’s game was scheduled to start at 12:05P (CST) to accommodate the FOX Game of the Week schedule.

The game was over. Players rushed through the clubhouse, showered and left to travel home and grab some sleep. Milwaukee’s not tough to get around at 1A in the morning. They were all capable of being home at 1:30A. Say it took a little while to get to sleep at about 2A. Many get to the ballpark four hours before game time. That means they had to get up at 7A and in the clubhouse at 8A. Routine time is at hand followed by batting practice for the home team. Gates open two hours before the game so it is time to go back to the clubhouse and begin the preparation for tendencies of the opposing pitcher and hitters. Interviews for local radio and FOX television along with welcome back home hugs and hand shakes for Darren Sutton, the former Brewer television announcer and now the television voice of the Arizona Diamondbacks, will be covering the national telecast. Visit to the training room is scheduled. Stretching comes next. The pains and bruises from the night before are nagging, especially for Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun, both of whom were hit by pitcher Lendy Castillo in the bottom of the 13th. Week’s had x-rays earlier in the morning on his wrist which proved negative. There were no broken bones. That could have added him to the sideline along with two others in the infield. Only Ramirez stands alone as the only infielder not to be on the DL for the season for the heroes of the Cream City nine.

There is a chance of rain for Saturday with a high of 60 degrees. The roof is open and the crowd has gathered. The heroes have been on the field warming up. It’s time for that leisurely athletic endeavor for another day. Jogging onto the field to take their positions, Marcum takes the rubber and the game begins all over again, 0-0. A clean slate. All is right with the world. Batter comes to the plate. And the umpire yells,

“Play Ball”.