In reality, there’s no reason to give the Brewers much of a chance. I’ve been telling that to anyone who will listen since mid-June, including diatribes about the team’s bullpen to Target checkout clerks whose only offense was asking me, "Were you able to find everything today?" But then this weekend, it dawned on me -- this team, as flawed as it may be, is still only 5 games out in the National League wild-card race. And none of the teams in front of them scare me one bit.
Do I really think the Brewers will win the wild card? Or even contend for it? Not especially. But it’s late July, Carlos Lee is still a Brewer, and they’re down five games with more than 60 to play. It’s not the Red Sox and Yankees in 1978, but around these parts, that qualifies as a pennant race.
OK, I hear your protestations -- I’ve been reciting them for the last six weeks. But as bad as they’ve played, as many games as Derrick Turnbow has blown, as many outs as they’ve made on the basepaths, the Brewers can’t completely back out of the wild-card hunt in a watered-down National League. Does anyone see the Reds running away and hiding? They recently engineered a blockbuster deal for -- Gary Majewski. Or the Giants? Jamey Wright is in their rotation. The Astros? They’re more inconsistent than the Brewers! The Braves are probably the favorite at the moment, and they had to go on a tear just to catch up with Milwaukee.
The Brewers’ main problem is, of course, the Brewers. Their self-destruct button is worn from overuse. They pulled to within 2.5 games of the first-place Cardinals two weeks ago and promptly closed out the first half with three straight losses to the woeful Cubs. They could have finished a huge 6-3 road swing this weekend, had they not blown ninth-inning leads in each city. And let us not forget the four-game sweep in Pittsburgh and losing two of three in Kansas City.
The most frustrating thing about this entire season is how easily Milwaukee could find itself in the Reds’ circumstance. Even at this stage, staying in the race is deceptively simple: it just requires moderate winning baseball. The Brewers don’t need to string together a double-digit winning streak like the Twins or three weeks of incredible ball, as the Angels are currently doing. To stay alive, they basically need to win series for a few weeks in a row. Of course, they haven’t done that all year.
Houston took the wild card last year with 89 wins, and there’s a decent chance that 86-88 victories could be good enough this season. If 87 wins is enough, that translates to a 40-23 finishing kick for the Brewers (prior to Monday’s game). It’s not likely, but it’s far from impossible.
Any string of success starts with a few wins, though. The Brewers don’t necessarily have to sweep this week’s homestand vs. the Pirates and Reds. But they do need to win both series, establish some consistency and start to take on a winning mindset. At this point, it’s almost like the NCAA Tournament -- survive and advance. Play well enough this week so that next week still matters. That’s all I’m asking.
To argue that the Brewers still have a pulse in this "race" is limited to just that. I am not suggesting they retain Lee in pursuit of a mirage, nor am I suggesting they dump him to the highest bidder. I am merely saying that while they have him and they’re within two good weeks of the wild-card lead, we may as well keep watching. I trust Doug Melvin to make a smart decision based on circumstances and potential offers over the next week.
Whatever happens, I have a feeling the recent three-city swing will feature prominently in the marketing DVD recapping the season. It’ll either be used in juxtaposition against the team’s fantastic finish, or it’ll be the denouement of a poor-selling version entitled "Trials and Tribulations: The Unmet Promise of the 2006 Brewers. Against my better judgment, I hold out hope for the former.
Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.
Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.