Listening to local sports talk radio one day last week, I had to pinch myself to prove I wasn't dreaming. At the time, the Brewers had won six straight games, and nine of their previous 10. But the guys on the air were talking like the Crew was mired in last place, playing out its string in early June.
"Where's the run production?" grumbled one wag, after the Brewers had just clobbered the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks by scores of 7-1 and 10-1. "They're not showing me anything."
With about a third of the season gone, the Brewers have a winning record and remain within striking distance of the Chicago Cubs, who lead the National League's Central Division. The Cubs are having a stellar season, averaging 5.6 runs per game, compared to the Brewers' 4.5.
But more important than stats or even win-loss records is that the Brewers have, under general manager Doug Melvin, assembled a group of players worth rallying around. These are guys with developing stories, giving fans a reason to follow their up and downs.
Start at the top with Ben Sheets, the team's pitching ace and highest-paid player, at more than $12 million this year. Sheets is 6-1 heading into Thursday's match-up against Houston.
But, like other Brewers, Sheets is a tragic as well as heroic figure. Though considered one of the game's best talents, he's never won more than 12 games in a season and hasn't pitched in over 30 since 2004. Speculating over whether the right-hander will wind up on the disabled list with a bad back or hurt finger or some other goofy problem is a popular Brewer fan pastime.
Another pitching standout with an up-down trajectory is Eric Gagne. Acquired in the off-season, the right-handed reliever was once the game's most dominating closer, coming out of the Dodgers' bullpen to rack up 152 saves between 2002 and 2004. He was plagued by injuries over the next two seasons, then tried coming back with Boston and Texas, but never regained his form.
So far, Gagne's performance for Milwaukee has been mercurial. He's pitched in 20 games and recorded 10 saves. But he's blown five saves, more than in any season of this career, earning the nickname "Gag Me." He's now on the disabled list, but is expected to rejoin the roster soon. Manny Parra and Salomon Torres have been pleasant surprises on the mound, taking some of the load off veteran starter Jeff Suppan.
The team also boasts Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Bill Hall and Prince Fielder - young players with undeniable talent who pour their heart and soul into the game. Sometimes the results are exhilarating; sometimes their frustration is heartbreaking to behold.
And then there's Ryan Braun, the reigning National League rookie of the year, with whom the Brewers just inked an eight-year, $45 million deal. Braun's performance is a delight for stats geeks who call up his profile on ESPN.com, which tracks hitting in every imaginable scenario. For instance, Braun has hit .450 lifetime against lefthanders, .326 in Miller Park and .417 with a man on third with less than two outs.
Recently, the club called up journeyman Russell Branyan from Nashville to fill in for the struggling Hall. He's since belted five homeruns, including a blast on May 31 that was measured at 465 feet, third longest in Miller Park history. (Branyan also hit the longest, 480 feet, in 2004). Since Branyan was called up, the Brewers are 11-5. Might he be a good luck charm?
Another journeyman having a positive impact is Gabe Kapler. Last year, Kapler was managing a minor league team; so far this year, he's hitting .330 as a pinch-hitting outfielder. He had a four-hit game last week, filling in for Mike Cameron in center. Both Kapler and Cameron, along with Jason Kendall and Craig Counsell, provide a steady, veteran influence in the Brewers' young clubhouse.
Can the Brewers catch Chicago, or are they competing for the wildcard? That's just one storyline available to fans this summer.
Father's Day options
If you're looking to take Dad to the ballgame on Sunday, here's two options. The Mallards, thanks to last weekend's deluge, will be taking on Waterloo at Warner Park, 3 p.m. You can also catch a Home Talent League game at a variety of area parks. Score a brat and a beer; you might even win the 50/50 raffle. See hometalent.org for schedules, standings and directions to the fields. My pick: Jefferson at Stoughton. Go, Merchants!