“We were definitely lost,” said shortstop J.J. Hardy. “We were losing more games than we were winning. There was some panic. It wasn’t really fun.”
The team’s decision-makers had rebuilt the club around a core of talented young players, including Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Hardy. On sheer talent, they bolted to an 8 1/2 -game lead in the division by late June and appeared playoff-bound.
But, as the older, more-experienced Cubs made their move, the young Brewers began to falter. Self-doubt crept in. The mounting tension was palpable, on and off the field.
It was a time when veteran leadership was badly needed, but the Brewers came up short in that department. They regrouped somewhat in September but it was too late, and the Cubs claimed the division title.
Realizing his younger players needed some veteran guidance in the clubhouse as well as winning know-how on the field, general manager Doug Melvin spent most of the off-season addressing that shortcoming. He signed catcher Jason Kendall, centerfielder Mike Cameron and backup outfielder Gabe Kapler, all tremendous individuals.
Melvin also made moves to stabilize a bullpen that had melted down from overwork, adding Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota, David Riske and Salomon Torres.
Fast-forward to this season. With the pennant race starting to heat up, the Brewers no longer are searching for an identity, no longer reaching for life preservers to keep their heads above water.
Instead, the Brewers are playing their best ball of the season, moving to a season-high 21 games above .500, their high-water mark of the past 16 years. They have a 3 1/2 -game lead over St. Louis in the wild-card race and have remained within striking distance of the Cubs for the division title.
It certainly didn’t hurt to add reigning American League Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia in a blockbuster trade before the all-star break. Veteran infielder Ray Durham was another nice addition a couple of weeks later.
But, as much as the veteran players have contributed on the field, Melvin and Yost believe they have made an even bigger impact in the clubhouse. How exactly does that work, you ask?
“It’s everything,” said Yost. “It’s the experience of being through it a number of times and just helping young guys. When guys get upset or frustrated or they start to press, you look around and there’s the veterans talking to them.
“A (younger) guy will come in and you’re ready to fry an egg on their head and you look two minutes later, and they’re laughing. That’s what veterans do. They calm things. There’s nothing better than having your teammate right there that’s battling with you.
“I can walk up and tell them, ’Relax, take it easy,’ things like that. But it’s always better coming from a teammate. We’ve got guys that are very calm and measured. That’s not even talking about what they do on the field. That’s the main thing everybody sees but the behind-the-scenes stuff is every bit as important, if not more.”
The calming presence of veteran players never was more important than three weeks ago when Fielder and Manny Parra had an ugly dugout altercation in Cincinnati. Older players immediately separated the two, and Cameron brokered a peace between them the following day.
Instead of a simmering, divisive feud developing, the matter was quickly forgotten and everyone moved on.
“As soon as that happened, there was a bunch of veterans handling that situation,” said Yost. “They were very proactive in that. Everybody knew what happened and what was going on.
“It wasn’t that big a deal, but we had to get it out and apologize to each other, make sure it wouldn’t happen again. We were all on the same page.“
Melvin noted that when television cameras pan the Milwaukee dugout during games, you often see an older player chatting up a younger player. Sabathia might be bending Parra’s ear. Durham is whispering things to Weeks. The information highway is flowing freely, making the Brewers a more well-rounded club as the intensity of the playoff race increases.
“It’s the things you don’t see, the little conversations by the lockers,” said Melvin, who noted that holdover Craig Counsell also is influential in that regard. They’re talking baseball.
“I think it has helped us on the road this year. We always ask, ‘How come teams win on the road?’ Sometimes, the younger teams struggle.
“I think our veteran players have helped us on the road. The crowds don’t bother them, but you get young guys out there and a rally starts and the crowd gets going and it gets to them.”
Without question, the younger players on the club are more equipped for the pressures of a playoff race, having experienced it for the first time a year ago. Add that maturity to the savvy of the imported veterans and you have a winning mix that has been tough to beat.
“It’s bringing it all together,” said Yost. “It’s all part of the plan. We’ve got the right veterans. When Doug looked at it, that’s the first question he asked: ‘How will this guy fit in the clubhouse?’
“It has been seamless. Unbelievably good.”
Only time will tell if that mix leads the Brewers to their first playoff berth in 26 years. But there is definitely a different feel about this club, compared to a year ago, when the collective confidence level was wavering.
“Last year, we were kind of lost,” said Hart. “We were scuffling big-time and we didn’t have enough older guys to help us out.
“In years past, we had guys who were good, but these guys have been there and know what it takes. They are leaders on this team.
“They can steer us in the right direction, let us know what we need to do. It makes a big difference.”