On Thursday, after the Milwaukee Brewers delivered a flaccid performance against the Los Angeles Dodgers, manager Ken Macha openly questioned the mental toughness of his team while lamenting their record in day games. Macha correctly pointed out that if the Brewers’ 16-29 record in afternoon games were reversed, they would be in the thick of the NL Central division chase and went on to suggest that they had come to accept losing while the sun is still in the sky. In response, first baseman Prince Fielder repeated the tired excuse about how hard it is to hit in the shadows of home games; conveniently ignoring the fact that the opposing team plays under the same conditions.
This episode highlighted something that’s bothered me about this team for the last couple of years. Whether it’s Fielder and Ryan Braun whining about the shadows at Miller Park or Corey Hart whining about the fans there seems to to a deficiency of, for lack of a better phrase, intestinal fortitude about this ballclub. With the exception of Rickie Weeks and maybe Craig Counsell, the Brewers don’t seem to have many players that would be traditionally described as “gamers”.
This manifests itself in a number of subtle ways that directly affect the outcomes of ballgames. How many times have we seen the Brewers roll through the first couple games of a series, looking primed for a sweep, only to have them lay an egg in the finale? In the 5th inning Thursday, the Brewers had the bases loaded with one out while the game was still in question and both Braun and Fielder failed to deliver. Given their attitudes, it’s fair to question whether that’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Last night, catcher Jonathan Lucroy dropped a perfect throw from Hart that would have prevented a run from scoring because he was bracing for a collision and failed to secure the ball. Of course the Brewers went on to win (it was a night game, after all) but that is the kind of play that could make the difference in a close contest.
And the problem isn’t limited to the everyday lineup. When the going gets tough, Brewers’ pitchers will lay one out over the plate leading to a game changing home run. Which Brewer pitcher is more frustrating to watch, Dave Bush or Manny Parra? By all accounts, Parra has the “stuff” to succeed at the major league level but his performance on the mound has never matched the expectations. Bush, on the other hand, is the kind of pitcher who looks good on a losing team. He leads the team in ‘quality starts’ and will most often keep them in games providing the offense does it’s part. But it’s rare that he will win a game on his own and will often serve up a pitch at a critical juncture in the game, as his 6-11 record, 1.54 WHIP and .294 opponents batting average will attest.
Even staff ‘ace’ Yovani Gallardo isn’t immune. Gallardo is practically a godsend by Milwaukee standards but seems to lack the bulldog mentality that is possessed by the league’s best. On most contending clubs, Gallardo would likely occupy the 2nd or 3rd spot in the rotation. In Milwaukee, he’s the pitcher on whom the team’s playoff hopes are pinned.
These are just small snippets that may not seem like much when taken individually, but collectively could make the difference between a contender and pretender over the grind of a 162 game season. You have to wonder when a guy like Jeff Suppan, who was the organization’s whipping boy for the last 3 seasons, can get released and go on to pitch credibly after he’s picked up by the St. Louis Cardinals.
It’s easy to dismiss many of the Brewers’ problems on the financial limitations of playing in Milwaukee. But owner Mark Attanasio has done everything a person in his position can be reasonably expected to do and still the problems persist. There was a time not too long ago when I dreaded the idea of the team having to trade Fielder. Now my fear is that the future of the franchise depends on getting a player (or players) with some ‘stones’ in return.