"It's early" is no longer an excuse...so is it now too late for the Brewers?
Maybe we were kidding ourselves, thinking this year's edition of the Milwaukee Brewers could repeat as division champs.
It would seem that way this Monday morning, one that finds the Brewers six games under .500 in fourth place in the NL Central with only woeful Houston and inept Chicago cushioning the Crew from the cellar. The new work week starts with a trip to division-leading Cincinnati where the Reds are playing the fine baseball many thought they would. Milwaukee, meanwhile, is coming off a gut-wrenching 1-0 loss to the White Sox Sunday, the ten-inning win giving Chicago the series victory.
There've been other painful defeats this season, but yesterday's flame-out at The Cell seems to signal a new nadir, with Manager Ron Roenicke pretty much throwing Nyjer Morgan under the bus for a critical base-running gaffe ("Ask him," said the skipper when post-game reporters pressed Roenicke for an explanation). Journal/Sentinel beat writer Tom Haudricourt writes, "The Milwaukee Brewers can stop providing evidence any time they'd like. We get it. This is not your 2011 championship-caliber ball club" while columnist Michael Hunt is even more pointed in his assessment of what transpired Sunday, saying "The only National League flag the Brewers seemed interesting in hoisting was a whiter shade of pale. In their final interleague game of the season, it was as if the Brewers had surrendered what was left of their tattered year."
Yowsa. How fast the afterglow fades from all those spiffy new Aaron Rodgers TV spots.
What happened to turn so much April optimism into so much June gloom? One could blame injuries, but that's a cop-out. Almost every team has a big name or three on the DL this season. The Brewers were a relatively healthy bunch when camp broke but were a mere 9-13 heading into the series in San Diego that saw them lose first baseman Mat Gamel and shortstop Alex Gonzalez within days of each other. So, we'll never know if Gamel was the worthy heir to Prince Fielder or how much better Gonzalez would've been than Yuni Bettancourt in 2012.
GM Doug Melvin's magical ability to find reclamation projects has yet to manifest itself this season--as evidenced by Cody Ransom and Brooks Conrad. Ransom was last seen striking out four times Sunday and Conrad fell out of favor when he couldn't live up to his spring training stats.
The lock-down late-inning relief that paved the way to so much 2011 success has yet to consistently materialize--John Axford and Frankie Rodriguez are, indeed, fallible. Manny Parra is consistently so. Kameron Loe keeps giving away Randy Wolf's wins. Wolf might be on suicide watch, having watched Loe and his comrades hand back six of nine potential W's. Offensively, clutch hits are hard to come by and Rickey Weeks has yet ot crack the Mendoza line. He remains in the lineup because, quite frankly, there's nothing to replace him with.
There are bright spots, and that's why I say it's too early to surrender. Ryan Braun is mashing after his winter of discontent. Corey Hart is comfy at first, where I think he should've been a long time ago. Nori Aoki should be leading off, given the green light every time he's on base and playing every day. Little by little, regulars are coming back, most notably Jonathan Lucroy, although Martin Maldanado filled in admirably. The Brewers found two capable starters in their minor league system and have Marco Estrada coming back, too.
The Rays and Cardinals dug out of ten-game holes in late August of 2011 to make playoff runs--St. Louis won the freakin' World Series. Granted, the Brewers don't have a David Freese in their starting eight, at least not yet. Intangibles--or 'breaks', if you will--have yet to go Milwaukee's way, but it's a long season and things change. Yes, the Crew is six and a half behind the Reds heading into this week's series in Cincinnati but this is a chance for the Brewers to show they can still fight for a division no one has yet to claim as their own. If Cincy takes all three, though, it might cement Melvin's fate as a mid-summer seller when other teams start asking about Milwaukee's available talent.
It's only June, but these three games in Cincinnati are pretty darn huge.