Like ’em or not, edgy Brewers playing aggressive, winning baseball
People are starting to hate the Brewers again.
Good for the Brewers.
"When we won 96 games (in 2011), I think there were a lot of teams that didn’t like us," general manager Doug Melvin said Tuesday.
"They may have liked us when we won 74 (in ’13), but we didn’t like ourselves. We liked ourselves better when we won 96."
Those Brewers featured Prince Fielder and Nyjer Morgan as part of their edgy mix. These Brewers feature the fiery Carlos Gomez, the deceitful Ryan Braun and other hyper-competitive if less villainous sorts.
You might not like Gomez, who was suspended three games on Tuesday for his aggressive actions in a bench-clearing incident between the Brewers and Pirates.
You almost certainly do not like Braun, who served a 65-game suspension last season for violating baseball’s drug and collective-bargaining agreements after vehemently denying that he had used performance-enhancing drugs.
But say this for the Brewers, who are a major-league best 15-6 thanks in large part to a pitching staff that ranks second in the National League in ERA:
They’ve got an identity. An identity that is necessary in the rough-and-tumble NL Central. An identity that has worked for them before.
The Brewers of the late 2000s untucked their jerseys after victories and performed a bowling-pin celebration after a walk-off homer by Fielder. The wacky Morgan entered the mix in ’11, manager Ron Roenicke’s first season, and the team advanced to the National League Championship Series.
"When you look at that 2011 team, the edge with Nyjer was the energy that he gave us," Roenicke said. "The edge, I know, rubbed off on other teams (the wrong way), but it gave us energy.
"Prince’s energy and edge was more the way he played. He wouldn’t put up with not going all-out. He didn’t put up with accepting losses easily. Rickie (Weeks) had the same kind of mentality. You go as hard as you can all the time. You’re out there every day. You grind it out. They both didn’t put up with guys not giving that kind of effort."
"This year’s team has a different kind of edge," Roenicke said. "Braunie doesn’t really have an edge to him. It’s more the way fans (react) to him when we are on the road. I think that pushes him. It may give him an edge to perform better, at a different level.
"Gomez has tremendous energy, and the team feeds off of it. He’s a great guy, a fun guy. But whether it’s competitiveness or whatever it is, he’s not going to take things from anybody else.
"It’s not that he wants to stir up things. But he wants to play his type of game. When other people don’t like it, he doesn’t do well with somebody saying something, whatever the case may be."
Roenicke said that he and Melvin met with Gomez on Monday, the day after the center fielder flipped his bat and jogged out of the batter’s box after hitting a long drive off the Pirates’ Gerrit Cole in Pittsburgh.
Gomez wound up with a triple instead of a home run, prompting Cole to confront him verbally at third. Gomez jawed back, and then — as the benches emptied — fired his helmet and started throwing punches. He is appealing his suspension, as are the Pirates’ Travis Snider and Russell Martin; the Brewers’ Martin Maldonado accepted a five-game ban.
As Brian McCann can attest, this was not Gomez’s first questionable display of on-field decorum. Still, as MLB Network showed in a video compilation, several Pirates ran just as slowly to first on long fly balls during the series.
Melvin and Roenicke said they are comfortable with Carlos being Carlos, and why not? Gomez was fifth in the majors in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) last season and is seventh this season, according to Fangraphs’ version of the measure.
"I don’t want him to take away from how he plays the game," Melvin said. "He has had success by doing that. That’s his style. I thought when Rickie Weeks was leading off, Rickie brought that. I always (compared) him to Ronnie Lott. He was a tough guy at the top of the order. He used to walk up there, and you knew you would get a good at-bat, an aggressive style."
Added Roenicke, "I think this guy needs to play this way to perform well. If you try to rein him in and say, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that. You’ve got to be more an on-base guy. You’ve got to slap it around. You’ve got to walk more.’ . . . I don’t think he plays well if he does that."
Gomez, though, is hardly the only intense Brewer. Shortstop Jean Segura draws praise from scouts for his running times to first. Right-hander Matt Garza livens up every clubhouse he enters. Six hours before Tuesday night’s game, Roenicke was fretting over closer Francisco Rodriguez, whom he knew would not react kindly when told that that he could not pitch a fifth consecutive day.
"There is something different about him that rubs off on the other guys in that bullpen," Roenicke said. "The young guys see what he does and then they can’t say, ‘I pitched two days in a row, I need a day off.’
"He doesn’t let those guys get away with anything. He makes sure that they’re prepared right for what they do. He runs that bullpen."
The impact of such toughness is impossible to measure, but the 2013 World Series champion Red Sox had it, and it seems that every contender in the NL Central does, too.
The Brewers did not seem to have it a year ago — a scout told me in late June, "there’s a lot of quit on that team." Roenicke emphatically denied that charge the next day. In retrospect, the club just wasn’t that good.
Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart — the team’s 3-4-5 hitters — were out for extended stretches. Second baseman Scooter Gennett, outfielder Khris Davis and right-hander Wily Peralta were rookies. Rodriguez went to the Orioles in a July trade.
This spring, Roenicke said, the players sensed that something was different, sensed that with the return of Rodriguez and additions of Garza and first basemen Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, the team was ready to win.
Melvin said that management encouraged the players to "get on each other" — self-police, if necessary. But at least so far, it hasn’t been necessary. Roenicke is excellent at communicating, Melvin said, "one of the better ones I’ve seen." And to this point, the team is unrelenting.
"We play an aggressive style — the way the game should be played," Melvin said. "It’s a very competitive division. You can’t just sit back and take it."
They’re not taking it. They’re not apologizing for it. They’re better for it, just as they were in the past.