- Phil Rogers
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Weather does not worry the Milwaukee Brewers. Their stadium has a retractable roof that will shelter them should their season extend beyond the fine Midwestern summer.
Nor are the Brewers overly concerned about the one cloud that has hung over them all season long, the Chicago Cubs. Though they may be in danger of losing touch with the Cubs in the National League Central, they've taken a wild-card lead that looks quite nonretractable.
So what if the Cubs took away much of the Brewers' buzz last September and show no signs of giving it back?
Though fans in Chicago won't be happy unless the Cubs reach the World Series, the ones in Milwaukee will party like it's 1982 if the Brewers only protect their 5½-game lead over the Philadelphia Phillies in the wild-card race. The chase was a crowded mess a month ago with four teams within two games, but now it's the Brewers' spot to lose.
Judging by the job CC Sabathia & Co. did this past weekend in Pittsburgh, they'll be awfully tough to catch. Sabathia's near no-hitter on Sunday capped a 4-1 trip that pushed the Brewers 24 games over .500 heading into a Labor Day game against the New York Mets, who could wind up facing the Brewers in the first round of the playoffs.
It's been 26 years since Milwaukee played in the playoffs -- only Montreal/Washington is experiencing a longer drought -- and fans know that anything can happen in October, including the Brewers' having the last laugh.
Why not? If it weren't for the Cubs, the spotlight would have been on Milwaukee for most of the season. The Brewers are clearly the second-best team in the NL, and the addition of Sabathia and emergence of closer Salomon Torres have filled voids that had left them vulnerable earlier in the season.
When Milwaukee added Sabathia on July 7, general manager Doug Melvin said the obvious: "We're going for it.'' It already had been clear, though, that owner Mark Attanasio had little else in mind.
Because recurring injuries made a long-term deal for pitcher Ben Sheets problematic, Attanasio long ago understood the significance of this season. He pegged it as an even better shot for the Brewers to reach the playoffs than 2007, when they led by 7½ games in late June but got passed by the Cubs. Attanasio gave Melvin the authority to add another $10 million to the payroll, which has grown from about $40 million in 2005 to more than $85 million, and he hasn't taken his foot off the pedal.
But early in the season, it seemed his team had done just that. Unsettled by the loss earlier this season of ace-in-waiting Yovani Gallardo to major knee surgery after only three starts, along with the realization that Eric Gagne would be a bust as closer, the Brewers' 26-28 record after 54 games left them in fourth place in the NL Central, seven games behind the Cubs.
There had been talk that manager Ned Yost would be the first manager to be fired this season, but it's never been Melvin's style to look for easy fixes. He remained patient with Yost, who installed Torres as his closer after Gagne went on the disabled list with tendinitis in his rotator cuff, then beat the Phillies' Pat Gillick and other general managers to Sabathia, who was traded about three weeks ahead of the expected schedule.
Sabathia has been a godsend, carrying the Brewers to a 10-1 record in his starts. But that's only part of the story.
Since the poor start, the Brewers have gone 54-28 -- playing .620 baseball (44-27) behind starters other than Sabathia. They have had the best ERA in the majors since the All-Star break, holding opponents to an average of 3.4 runs in 41 games, and rank fourth in the NL with 216 runs scored since the All-Star break.
Pitching coach Mike Maddux and veteran catcher Jason Kendall have been working wonders with their staff. The keys have been fifth starter David Bush and No. 3 starter Jeff Suppan's stepping it up. Bush, who was in danger of losing his job not long ago, is 4-1 with a 3.50 ERA in seven second-half starts; Suppan is 5-1 with a 4.09 ERA in eight second-half starts.
Kendall, discarded by the Cubs to make room for rookie Geovany Soto, works overtime. He has started 123 of 136 games, the most of any catcher in the majors.
Yost, a former catcher, loves the way Kendall prioritizes his role as a game-caller and receiver.
"He wants to get that pitcher through the game,'' Yost told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "That's what I want, somebody back there who is focused on them, concerned about them. He hasn't slowed down a bit, from the first day of spring training. He's the first one here every day, and it's not to sit in the training room. He doesn't take any crap from anybody. He just plays, and plays hard."
Left fielder Ryan Braun has joined first baseman Prince Fielder to give Yost a two-slugger lineup. Center fielder Mike Cameron, another dangerous hitter, has upgraded both the fielding and the clubhouse. Right fielder Corey Hart has had back-to-back 20-homer, 20-stolen-base seasons, a feat that had never been done in Milwaukee.
Yost won't be surprised if Hart morphs into a 30-30 player in a year or two.
"He's definitely got that chance," Yost said. "He's still learning how to be a major league hitter. He's still unselective at times and gets himself out too much. But that's his style. He's got a lot of power; he's got great base-running instincts. He's only getting better and smarter at stealing bases."
Milwaukee makes too many unforced errors in the field, but nothing is more important after Labor Day than pitching. The Brewers have a lot of that, and plenty of everything else, too. They're playing in the shadow of the Cubs, but just might be on a collision course to meet them in October.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).
The Brewers are not in the spotlight because of the Cubs' success, but Milwaukee doesn't mind as long as a playoff berth is theirs at season's end.