Kartje: Brewers are in unfamiliar territory
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke isn't one for adding importance to midseason games. He's not one to make guarantees. And even through the Brewers' early struggles, he never bit on questions that would force him to levy some kind of drastic expectation on one series or another.
But a week before the All-Star game, Roenicke seemed to break character, even if it was subtle.
"You guys know — I don't like to look at our schedule and what's coming up," Roenicke said on July 2. "But when you have a conversation with (general manager) Doug (Melvin), he's got it figured out where we need to make a run. And he's right."
That stretch Roenicke talked about at the time was the Brewers post-All-Star break set of nine games against NL Central opponents.
"Somewhere in that time period, we need to do something," Roenicke said.
It was a sentiment that he and Melvin repeated on several occasions after that day. And it's a sentiment that, after this past weekend's three-game sweep at the hands of the Reds, may signal that the end of the Brewers' playoff optimism is near.
Eight games back in the NL Central race with the All-Star break behind them, the Brewers had legitimate reason to hope for the best. Even with three teams ahead of them in the division, if the stretch of nine games swung heavily in their favor, Milwaukee could be a few games from the top. There was a chance, but even Roenicke knew it was slight.
Nine games later, calling the Brewers' chances at the playoffs "slight" sounds like optimism.
The Brewers finished their nine-game stretch with a 4-5 record, when at least seven or eight wins served as a realistic expectation for the team getting back in the playoff hunt. They now stand at 10 ½ games back in the NL Central race and 7 ½ back in the wild card — the sixth-worst team in the National League, according to their record.
But perhaps the most concerning aspect of the Brewers' fight to return to relevance in the division is the fact that three talented teams (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis) — teams that don't quite look primed for lengthy losing streaks — are ahead of them in the NL Central standings.
Following the final game of the weekend sweep, Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun was blunt about the state of his fourth-place team.
"We're a distant fourth now and we should be," Ryan Braun told the Associated Press. "All three of those teams have played better than us. They just have. The ability's there, but we haven't executed or put it together to this date. We pitch great and we don't score runs. There are other days we score a lot of runs and don't pitch. I guess plenty of times we just found a way to lose. It's challenging."
And there are plenty of challenges remaining for the Brewers this season, the most prevalent of which, in the next week, will be whether the team can sign Zack Greinke to a proposed $100-million extension or trade him before the July 31 deadline. Greinke isn't the only Brewer rumored to be on the move either, as the team may soon signal that its chances in the playoff race are too slim to do anything but sell at the deadline.
Asked if other teams can sense the Brewers getting closer to selling, Roenicke told reporters on Sunday, "I'm sure that is the case. It's a time when a lot of teams look at a certain piece and now if they have that piece, it might not just get them into the playoffs but take them deep into the playoffs.
The book isn't completely closed on the Brewers' 2012 playoff hopes. To say that in July would ignore some of the great, late-season runs that we've witnessed in baseball history. After all, the Brewers do open August with 12 straight games against division opponents. But after a mood-killing weekend like Milwaukee just experienced in Cincinnati, it might take a historical comeback to see the Brewers ascend to the top of the NL Central again this season.
Whether the organization feels that way just yet — officials have been hesitant to indicate to anyone that they were ready to sell before now — is another story. But that should be cleared up before too long. With the trade deadline just a week away, we should know soon how Melvin is thinking.
Until then though — for those still hopeful the Brewers will be playing October baseball — it may just be time to start hoping for history to be made.
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