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!

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