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Falling just short will motivate Brewers

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Tom Haudricourt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Saturday, October 7, 2017

How do you play 162 games, miss a shot at the postseason by one victory, and not play the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” game in your mind for weeks to come?

That was the scenario in 2017 for the Milwaukee Brewers, who weren’t expected to be contenders but stayed in the hunt for a playoff berth until eliminated in Game No. 161. Yes, it is agonizing to come that close and fail, no matter what was predicted for the club.

But manager Craig Counsell said he could use that narrow miss as a carrot to dangle in front of the club next spring.

“As much as anything, I will use it as motivation,” Counsell said at the team’s annual season wrap-up media session. “That’s the proper way to use it.

“That involves a little bit of looking back, for sure. You have to always examine what you have done to see if you can do it better. That’s a responsibility I will challenge everybody with.

“But as much as anything, it is motivation for how you can do things better and how you can challenge yourself and a way to look forward, and a way for us to step into next season and figure out what we can do a little bit better.”

In other words, you use this season as a building block in a rebuilding process that, by all appearances, is ahead of schedule. The Brewers began the season with a vastly inexperienced roster--17 players were near or at minimum salary--and therefore considered unready to contend for the postseason.

Somebody forget to tell that to the men in the clubhouse, however. They already were in the process of forming a tight, fun-loving bond before the season began, and that chemistry only grew as the year progressed. The team developed a trait you cannot teach – resiliency – refusing to mope around or allow tough losses to create a hangover the next day.

So, with the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs and others in the NL Central unable to make a serious move over the first half of the season, the Brewers jumped into the void. By the time they hit the all-star break, they had a 50-41 record and 5 ½ game lead in the division, creating this question throughout the baseball world: “Who are these guys?”

Whether the players started feeling the pressure or they merely were due a market correction at their experience level, the Brewers stumbled badly out of the break, going 9-18 over the first 27 games. In the meantime, the Cubs woke up and decided to start playing baseball, bolting into first place as expected all along.

From that point, the Brewers became chasers, in both the NL Central and wild-card races. When you’re in chase mode, there is less margin for error, and each loss down the stretch hurt badly. The Brewers held together a depleted rotation with spit and baling wire, relied heavily on the bullpen and tried to eke out enough runs from an offense that was too reliant on home runs to score.

The whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and the Brewers fought to the very end. Well, not the very end, but the day prior to the very end, before ceding the second wild-card berth to the Colorado Rockies. It was a painful way for the chase to end, but suffice it to say an 86-win season far exceeded expectations from the outside world.

“I think our guys did a nice job of understanding the importance of every single day and responding to every single day,” Counsell said. “The details are always going to be a challenge that I think about, and how to get us focused on the details and understanding the importance of the details.

“In a season like this, where one game is what you missed by, it’s natural to look back on game ‘whatever’ and say, ‘Man, just something a little different there.’ That’s what the season does to you. I think it’s human nature to do that. We’ll try to get better at the details.”

Were there individual disappointments? As in any season, of course, there were. Jonathan Villar went from offensive dynamo in ’16 to playing his way onto the bench. Opening day starter Junior Guerra blew out a calf three innings into the season and never approached his stellar form of a season ago. Newly signed closer Neftali Feliz quickly pitched his way off the team. Right-hander Matt Garza got to the end of his four-year, $50 million contract without ever meeting expectations.

Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell talks in his season-ending news conference talks about coming close to making the playoffs, Eric Thames' season and the success of pitchers Chase Anderson and Corey Knebel. Mike De Sisti

But, for every disappointment, there were two pleasant surprises. Third baseman Travis Shaw and first baseman Eric Thames provided left-handed pop that balanced the lineup. Rightfielder Domingo Santana stepped forward as a consistent offensive performer. Starting pitchers Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson and Zach Davies formed a dependable rotation core until Nelson suffered a shoulder injury in early September.

Young Orlando Arcia gave eye-popping previews of coming attractions at shortstop. Corey Knebel took over as closer and set strikeout records with electric stuff. Catcher Manny Piña discouraged potential base stealers with a strong, accurate arm. Rookie lefty Josh Hader came up from the minors to become a dominant force out of the pen. Slugger Jesus Aguilar and sparkplug Eric Sogard made key contributions off the bench.

When all was said and done, it was obvious the Brewers had more talent than given credit for entering the season, which will have an effect on how general manager David Stearns and his staff proceed over the off-season.

“I will say I am comfortable with the team we have,” Stearns said. “I think we have a team that has a chance to continue to grow together. We’ve seen the growth and development of this unit over the last season, season and a half.

“We are always going to be looking to add to that depth. I do think we had a great deal of depth this year, and we saw in September how much even that extent of depth was challenged. That tells me you can never have enough good players.

“We are going to have players next year who greatly exceed our expectations and we are going to have players who don’t quite get to the level of performance that we see coming into the year.

"We will be prepared for both of those.”



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