Brewers hope fast starts carries to finish

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Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, August 31, 2014

Can a team win its division solely on the basis of a fantastic start to the season?

It appears the Milwaukee Brewers are determined to answer that question as they try to hang on to first place in the NL Central, a position they have held for almost the entire season. They entered their game Saturday in San Francisco with a 73-61 record, meaning they had gone 53-54 since bolting from the blocks with a 20-7 record.

Since getting off to that great start, the Brewers have put together only one extended hot streak. From June 16-28, they won 10 of 13 games to boost their record to 51-32, their high-water mark for the season. At that point, they had a 6-game lead in the division.

The next day, beginning with a loss at home to Colorado, the Brewers fell into their longest slide of the season, dropping 11 of 13 games entering the all-star break. They came out of the break with two losses in three games in Washington, giving them 13 defeats in 16 games.

The Brewers have had modest winning streaks of four and five games in the second half while compiling an 20-18 record entering Saturday. It has helped that no other team in the division has caught fire and gone on a tear to take control of the NL Central.

“We’ve been in first place the whole time, so we’ve been pretty consistent in that regard,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. “Every team has its streaks. You try to avoid the long losing streaks.

“The game is evaluated week by week. That’s the whole thing. You have a good week and it can change a lot.”

Beginning Monday afternoon with the start of a three-game series in Chicago against the Cubs, the Brewers will play 26 games in September. All but four games at home against Miami from Sept. 8-11 will be against divisional foes—including seven against St. Louis.

The make-or-break portion of that schedule likely will come from Sept. 16-25, when the Brewers go on a three-city, nine-game trip to St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. They return home for three games against the Cubs at Miller Park to finish the season.

The Cardinals finish the season with six games on the road, but they come against two losing teams—the Cubs and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Their other trip comes from Sept. 4-11, when they play four against the Brewers and four against the Reds.

The Cardinals know they’ve already dodged the bullet of missing all-star catcher Yadier Molina for six weeks with a thumb injury. When Molina went on the DL on July 10, St. Louis trailed the Brewers by two games. When he returned to action Friday, the Cards were behind only 1 games.

No rest for weary

It became evident early, especially after Tyler Thornburg and Jim Henderson were lost with injuries, that left-handers Will Smith and Zach Duke and closer Francisco Rodriguez were the go-to relievers in the Brewers’ bullpen with games on the line. Accordingly, their appearance totals grew and grew.

Entering Saturday, Smith was tied for first in the NL with 66 appearances, and Duke and Rodriguez were tied for ninth with 61 each. And all three pitchers were showing signs of wear and tear.

Smith, who was brilliant in the first two months of the season, made it to the all-star break with a 3.09 ERA in 49 outings. In 17 outings since, he has a 5.27 ERA (14.54 in 11 July games).

Duke was nearly unhittable through July, posting a brilliant 1.04 ERA. In August, however, he has been very hittable, with a 10.57 ERA in 11 games (12 hits, four walks in 7 2/3 innings).

Rodriguez, among the league leaders with 39 saves, made 45 appearances before the all-star break with a 2.58 ERA. In 16 games since, he has a 4.30 ERA and his home-run total has soared to 12 in 60 innings.

“We just have a lot of close games,” Melvin said. “We made the decision that you have a closer and we try to have a setup guy. And we’ve had a lot of close games with those specified roles. Overall, we are not very high in innings pitched compared to other teams.”

In fact, the Brewers had 379 2/3 relief innings entering Saturday, the fifth fewest in the majors. Cincinnati, Kansas City, Detroit and Atlanta were the only teams with fewer innings out of their bullpens.

But when the same three pitchers are counted upon time after time, it eventually takes a toll, especially in high-leverage, stressful outings.

“You ask do you lose games in the last three innings or the first three innings, if we don’t get a run early or make an error that costs you a run,” Melvin said. “All of the focus is on the end of games. There’s no doubt about it.

“A team plays about 250 innings in a month. There’s a lot of weight put on the bullpen guys. You try to weigh their innings against the total number of innings. But that’s what happens when the games are decided in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.”

Melvin tried to work out a trade for a late-inning reliever before the July 31 non-waiver deadline without success. Teams can still make deals if a player clears waivers or they claim him, but that process hasn’t worked out for the Brewers, either.

“There have been so many guys on waivers, but there have been as many blocks as I’ve seen before and very few trades,” said Melvin, referring to the practice of teams putting in claims on players merely to prevent rivals from getting them. More often than not, those players are recalled from waivers and unavailable for the remainder of the season.

Trading for an average reliever doesn’t make a lot of sense, according to Melvin.

“If you get another pitcher, you’re only going to add 10 innings or so,” he said. “So you’re going to have to do it with the guys you have. Maybe you score more runs and don’t need to use the (high-leverage) guys as much.”

To have a traded player eligible for the postseason, he must be acquired before Monday. The Brewers will add more arms to their bullpen that day when rosters can be expanded.

“My focus now is to see if there’s any way we can add somebody, but I’m not totally encouraged by it,” Melvin said.

No secrets anymore

For obvious reasons, Melvin was not pleased that it was reported he put in a waiver claim on Colorado first baseman Justin Morneau but was unable to work out a trade for the NL batting leader. Waiver claims are supposed to be confidential but more and more, they leak out when involving high-profile players.

While declining to confirm the Morneau report, Melvin said, “I think there are going to be big changes in the waiver process. I know I’m going to recommend to the GMs to make some changes. It gets worse every year. The players don’t want to hear that. You get calls from agents who say, ‘I saw my guy is on trade waivers.’

“Nobody ever knows if you’re close to a deal or not unless you’re in the room. Sometimes, teams try to see if they can get overwhelmed. That wasn’t the case in some of the dealings I’ve had.

“What happens in some of these cases is the front office looks at their players and they say, ‘Maybe we can win next year. Look at the Milwaukee Brewers. They had a rough year in 2013 and look where they’re at next year. Maybe we’ll just keep our players and try to win next year.’

“If you look at teams that aren’t performing well, you question why they don’t want to give up players. They probably re-evaluate and say, ‘This player can help us next year.’ Or they can wait until the offseason and get 29 clubs involved instead of one team.

Though Mark Reynolds is tied for the team lead with 21 home runs and Lyle Overbay has been a key bat off the bench, the Brewers rank near the bottom of the major leagues in OPS for their first basemen for the second consecutive year. What made the possible acquisition of Morneau interesting is that he is signed for 2015 at a reasonable salary of $6.75 million with a mutual option for $9 million for ’16.

Thus, had they acquired Morneau, the Brewers would know who their first baseman would be for next season. Instead, they once again will have to figure out what to do with the position going forward.

“I’m not worried about next year,” Melvin said. “I’ll worry about next year, next year. There’s nothing you can do about next year today.”

A two-way street

The Brewers have been affiliated with the Class AAA Nashville Sounds since the 2006 season and stayed there despite the team playing in outdated Greer Stadium, a 37-year-old fossil that will be put out of its misery after this season. The Sounds’ new ownership finally succeeded in putting together a public-private financing plan to build a new ballpark in time for the 2015 season.

The Sounds played their final game at Greer on Wednesday night, losing to Sacramento, 8-5.

After sticking with the Sounds all that time as they fought to get a new facility, the Brewers now face the possibility of being kicked to the curb with their player development contract expiring after the 2014 season. One popular rumor had the Brewers moving their Class AAA affiliate all the way out to Fresno, California.

“Fresno is not a place we are looking to go to,” Melvin said.

Melvin is still awaiting word from Nashville owner Frank Ward as to his intentions for a new contract.

“It’s up to that ballclub, not us,” Melvin said. “We don’t make that decision. We’ve made every indication we want to stay there. We’ve been there a number of years now and played under certain conditions that weren’t the best.

“We like the city; the city has treated us well. We love the new ownership. … We’ve had good conversations. I talked to the owner three weeks ago and he said he just wants to wait. He’s busy building the new ballpark.”

Minor-league teams with expiring player development contracts have between the end of their season and Sept. 11 to notify their respective commissioners of their intent to terminate their relationship with a big-league club. Those notifications are not made public, but teams without contracts are notified between Sept. 12-15 of the pool of available open affiliations.

Beginning on Sept. 16 and continuing through the end of the month, major-league and minor-league teams can negotiate new deals with each other. If all agreements are not in place by Oct. 7, MLB and Minor League Baseball combine to pair affiliates to franchises without a contract.

“I think we have a good relationship with (the Sounds), but that doesn’t mean they won’t look somewhere else,” Melvin said.

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