Winning culture developing in Milwaukee

Originally Published: May 15, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- As the Milwaukee Brewers make the transition from April flashes to a national feel-good story, they must find a way to answer the inevitable questions about staying power.

Somewhere between the income tax filing deadline and a three-game sweep of St. Louis at Miller Park in early May, the Brewers passed the "who are those guys?" stage and went directly to "are they for real?"

Brewers shortstop J.J. Hardy talks about the tough times he had to deal with in the past.

It's natural to wonder, given that the Brewers went 8-1 against Pittsburgh and Washington on their way to the fastest start in baseball. Life gets more complicated in the current phase of the schedule, which includes series against the Mets, Phillies, Twins, Dodgers, Padres and Braves.

As the Brewers give commissioner Bud Selig a welcome respite from Barry Bonds and Kirk Radomski updates, players and fans in Milwaukee are trying to absorb precisely what's happening. The city hasn't enjoyed a winning team since 1992, and it's now a quarter century since Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and friends lost to St. Louis in the World Series.

Outfielder Geoff Jenkins, the Brewer with the longest running active tenure, is working on a streak of 1,131 straight games without a postseason appearance. He's ready for September games that have some meaning.

"The '82 team gets a lot of hype because of what happened," Jenkins said. "That's cool and everything. You're glad to glorify what they did. We're just trying to create some new memories for people."

Part of creating memories is bouncing back from hellish defeats. The Brewers endured a classic character builder Monday, making some costly baserunning mistakes and blowing a four-run eighth-inning lead in an 8-6 loss to Philadelphia. After watching the Phillies smack line drives all over Citizens Bank Park against Derrick Turnbow, manager Ned Yost gave his players the old "stuff happens" talk.

"You wish it could be hunky-dory for 162 games," Yost said, "but there are going to be ups and downs. We have to focus on staying constant and not getting into the 'woe is me, here we go again' train of thought. This team is too good for that."

Are the Brewers mere spring teases or a team with legitimate October aspirations? Here are 10 reasons to think they might be for real:

1. They really can hit

First base
Milwaukee Brewers

Profile
2007 SEASON STATISTICS
GM AVG HR RBI OBP SLG
38 .295 11 32 .374 .584
With Prince Fielder and J.J. Hardy leading the way, the Brewers rank third in the National League in runs and second in OPS. As their young hitters continue to mature, they're showing more plate discipline and a better two-strike approach. The team on-base percentage is .337 -- not great, but an improvement over last season's .327.

Yost's platooning regimen is having the desired effect. He is rotating Jenkins, Corey Hart and Kevin Mench between the two corner outfield spots and playing Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino in a Rance Mulliniks-Garth Iorg-type platoon at third base.

One byproduct: A significantly reduced strikeout rate. Last year, the Brewers whiffed 1,233 times -- second highest total in the majors behind Florida. This year, they're tied for 16th in the big leagues in strikeouts.

2. Five solid starters
Maybe the Brewers lack a bona fide ace along the lines of Chris Carpenter in St. Louis or Roy Oswalt in Houston. But the rotation of Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush and Claudio Vargas gives this team a legitimate chance to win every night.

Milwaukee is 25-13 even though Sheets, the staff's nominal No. 1 guy, has yet to find his stride. Sheets is basically a two-pitch guy -- fastball, curve -- and his breaking pitch hasn't cooperated much in the first six weeks.

"I didn't have anything early, just a bad heater that I couldn't locate," Sheets said. "Just getting through innings was a good thing."

3. A reliable bullpen

Francisco Cordero
Cordero
Monday's meltdown notwithstanding, the late-inning combination of Francisco Cordero and Turnbow has been virtually untouchable. The league is batting .077 against Cordero, and he and Turnbow have a combined 46 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings. "That's just sick," said Cubs reliever Scott Eyre.

Left-hander Brian Shouse stranded his first 20 inherited runners, and righty Matt Wise is holding lefties to a .174 average on the strength of an effective changeup.

4. Plenty of depth
Brewers general manager Doug Melvin signed Alex Rodriguez to a $252 million contract while in Texas, but it was with owner Tom Hicks' cowboy boot lodged in his back. Melvin is more comfortable making quiet, under-the-radar deals that bring back multiple pieces.

During his tenure in Milwaukee, Melvin has added three starters (Capuano, Bush and Vargas), four relievers (Cordero, Carlos Villanueva, Elmer Dessens and Shouse), a starting catcher (Johnny Estrada), two outfielders (Mench and Gabe Gross) and an infielder (Graffanino) through trades.

As a result, the Brewers have credible Plan B's in most areas if they suffer a run of injuries. Villanueva and Yovani Gallardo, the organization's top prospect, bring depth to the rotation, and Counsell and Graffanino provide middle-infield insurance.

Third baseman Ryan Braun, one of the game's elite hitting prospects, has a .717 slugging percentage with Triple-A Nashville and is just a phone call away. He's missed some time recently with a wrist injury.

5. The little things
In past years, the Brewers' typical spring workout revolved around batting practice for hitters and throwing for pitchers. This spring, Yost went heavier on fundamentals -- bunting and pitchers' fielding practice, defense and baserunning.

"If we had time to hit, OK, we'd hit," Yost said. "Hitting wasn't the main focus all of a sudden."

The Brewers, by all accounts, have been more diligent about hitting cutoff men and playing fundamentally sound ball. The defense is also better, with second baseman Rickie Weeks showing notable signs of improvement.

And Milwaukee is turning into a National League version of the Angels, running the bases ultra-aggressively in an effort to put constant pressure on the opposition. Weeks and Counsell both ran into ugly outs Monday, but the team mind-set isn't going to change.

6. An unselfish mind-set
In February, the Brewers endured a mini-controversy when Jenkins and Mench expressed displeasure over the prospect of reduced at-bats in the outfield. Yost invited both players into his office for a chat, and the controversy died almost as soon as it began.

"We need 25 players pulling together, and Ned is getting them to buy into the team concept," Melvin said. Whether it's hitting the ball to the right side to advance a runner or Bill Hall's accepting the move from the infield to center, you won't hear much squawking in the Milwaukee clubhouse.

7. The National League Central
The Brewers are fortunate to be playing in what one NL executive called "by far the worst division in baseball right now." Other than the Cubs, who could be dangerous if Carlos Zambrano gets his act together, it's tough to envision another Central club putting together a prolonged hot streak. It might not take 90 victories to win the division.

8. Homefield advantage
Something about the Bernie Brewer slide and the sausage races brings out the best in the Brewers. They went 48-33 at home last season, but squandered that record by going 27-54 on the road.

So far this season, they're 16-5 at Miller Park and playing better than .500 ball on the road. If the race is close, they have the luxury of finishing the season with a seven-game homestand against St. Louis and San Diego.

9. Veteran leadership
Cubs manager Lou Piniella recently praised the Brewers for their well-constructed roster and balance of speed and power, then wondered aloud how Milwaukee's young players will handle the increased media scrutiny they'll get as division front-runners.

"We need 25 players pulling together, and Ned is getting them to buy into the team concept."
-- GM Doug Melvin

That's where the new additions should help. Counsell played for World Series champions in Florida and Arizona, and Suppan was a postseason regular in St. Louis. They're here to school the kids on the grind.

"Those guys help remind you that it's a long year, so you have to stay focused and grounded," Yost said. "They've been through it, so they know."

If the Brewers were inclined to pout about Monday's loss, they never got the opportunity. There was a kangaroo court scheduled for late Tuesday afternoon, with Jenkins, Suppan, Counsell, Graffanino and catcher Damian Miller playing the role of the Supreme Court.

10. A game plan
When Los Angeles investment manager Mark Attanasio bought the Brewers, he assigned Melvin a project: Study other clubs in similar financial situations -- like Oakland, Florida and Minnesota -- and look at the approach they've taken in competing with limited resources.

Yost, hired in 2002 after 12 years on Bobby Cox's staff in Atlanta, thinks Milwaukee's approach is more reminiscent of the Braves in the early '90s. Atlanta developed Tom Glavine, Ron Gant, David Justice and a bunch of talented kids on the farm, then supplemented them with free agents Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream just as they were ready to take off.

Milwaukee benefited from the astute scouting of Jack Zduriencik, who drafted the Fielder-Hardy-Weeks contingent. The kids learned how to win together in Beloit, Huntsville and Nashville. And now that they're in the majors to stay, the Brewers have added Suppan, Counsell et al to complete the picture.

"There are some interesting parallels," Yost said. "I could see it when I was brought in here five years ago."

The Brewers, of course, aren't thinking about 14 division titles. After so many wasted summers, the Milwaukee players and fans would be perfectly content with one.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer