I love Coach Wade.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m not talking about Wade Phillips or my junior high school basketball coach. I’m talking about a recently-eliminated contestant on the current (ends Sunday night) season of Survivor.
Whether endlessly popping his jersey as the self-appointed “Dragonslayer,” reciting self-penned poetry on his Survivor experience, or collapsing in pain from phony injuries, drama queen Coach Wade is one of the most memorable contestants in the nearly 10-year history of the CBS reality series.
But if you don’t watch Survivor, you surely have no idea who I’m talking about.
However, I don’t watch American Idol or Dancing with the Stars and I know exactly who Adam Lambert is and when Lil’ Kim and her dance partner were eliminated thanks to how those two shows have saturated popular culture in a way that the long-in-the-tooth Survivor no longer does.
But I have no doubt that there is more entertainment value in just one of Coach Wade’s Survivor interview segments than in an entire season of Idol or DWTS.
Likewise, the story of the 2009 Milwaukee Brewers seems to be going largely unnoticed, either by local writers who choose to obsess over every infinitesimal detail having to do with Brett Favre (and I’m certainly guilty of that), or by the national media who are more engaged with the suspension of Manny Ramirez, the ineffectiveness of David Ortiz, or the pathetic ceremonial pitch thrown out at Citi Field by Howard Stern’s Baba Booey.
You could make an MLB-wide argument for the early-season successes of the Toronto Blue Jays or even the Kansas City Royals, but make no mistake about it: In the National League, the Milwaukee Brewers are the story.
I’ve been reluctant to heap praise on the Brewers this season, since last year whenever I did they went into a tailspin, but I simply can’t write another word on Brett Favre’s torn biceps tendon without acknowledging what the Brewers are doing: Since starting out 4-9 and being prematurely declared dead by everyone (including me), they have gone 18-5 (best stretch in baseball) and have not lost a series since losing their first four.
To anyone who would discard the last 23 games by claiming that the Brewers have feasted on MLB’s weaklings, I would say that, yes, I agreed with that logic to a point.
But not now, not after Milwaukee took two of three from the Cubs last week and now seem poised to win their current series at St. Louis (as I write, they are up 4-0 early in Sunday’s game). The Cubs and Cards are clearly the Brewers’ strongest division foes; if they can continue to handle them, they will win the NL Central.
Any discussion of the Brewers’ success over the last month has to start with pitching. While the losses of Sabathia and Sheets seemed destined to doom Milwaukee (and did very early on), the rotation is now one of the strongest in the majors.
As a team, the Brewers have the third-best ERA in the NL (4.00), are tied for most quality starts (22), and have surrended the next-to-fewest earned runs in the league (142) while holding opponents to the next-to-worst batting average (.239).
That the Brewers staff is doing this without Sabathia and Sheets is as surprising as the fact that we’re halfway through May and the Royals haven’t been mathmatically eliminated from the postseason.
In the Brewers’ rotation, certainly Jeff Suppan deserves special mention. After a walk-infested meltdown on April 12 against the Cubs at Miller Park caused Brewer fans to give him roughly the same treatment that a Viking fan with swine flu would get at Lambeau Field, Suppan has been largely lights-out, notching a 2.92 ERA and a 3-1 record over his last six starts.
Suppan’s shutout performance Saturday at Busch Stadium was nothing short of historic as he carried the Brewers to a win for just the sixth time in franchise history when the offense earns just one or two hits.
And unlike last year, when no lead was safe with the likes of Eric Gagne and Guillermo Mota coming out of the bullpen, Trevor Hoffman has been a better closer than Tom Selleck and Kyra Sedgwick combined, converting on nine-of-nine save opportunities, allowing only three hits, and chalking up a perfect 0.00 ERA.
Reliever Mark DeFelice (3-0, 0.98 ERA) has been exceptional as well.
Considering that prior to the start of the season the Brewers’ offense was expected to be the team’s strength, its batting numbers aren’t as impressive as the team’s pitching stats. However, the Brewers’ hitters are holding their own: The team ranks second in the NL in home runs (48) and fifth in on-base percentage (.347).
But surprisingly, the Brewers are near the bottom of the league in batting average (.255). Not so surprisingly, the Brewers’ batters are near the top of the league (third) in strikeouts (292).
But even with J.J. Hardy and Jason Kendall getting about as many hits as a McLean Stevenson tribute Web site, the Brewers lineup will remain treacherous for most any opposing pitcher.
As the Brewers head into interleague play, it will be interesting to see how manager Ken Macha integrates third baseman Mat Gamel—a top offensive prospect just called up from Triple-A Nashville—into the lineup.
Macha may have been planning to use Gamel as the DH in next weekend’s series at Minnesota, but if Rickie Weeks’s wrist injury (he left Sunday’s game in the first inning) amounts to anything, Gamel may be used more frequently to platoon at third with Bill Hall, who is struggling again against right-handed pitching.
Craig Counsell would presumably then take Weeks’s spot at second base, as he did on Sunday.
It will also be interesting as the season progresses to see if Ken Macha, who has all of the charisma of a frozen pot pie, will be able to hold a post-game press conference without putting any writers and reporters to sleep. But if Macha’s lack of energy somehow continues to translate into success on the field, Brewers fans will take it.