Certain bits of baseball trivia and mental associations will stick with you no matter how many years have gone by. For me, the Milwaukee Brewers will always be a team of streaks and sudden reversals of fortune because they opened the 1987 season 13-0, and shortly thereafter played back their gains by going on a 12-game losing streak. They finished third in a tight divisional race. Their 91-71 record was one of their best of the period, but it felt disappointing given the auspicious way the season had begun.
Every vestige of that team is long gone, but for its shortstop now managing the Chicago Cubs. But I was 16 then, and in the attic of the mind I still love the girl I loved then, long for the $2.50 two-slices-and-a-coke lunch special at a pizza place long since demolished , and miss the hours I spent in class pouring over Paul Molitor's .353/.438/.566 season, which Topps had helpfully licensed to a company that made folders -- nothing like having a giant baseball card or two on your desk and being able to pretend you're looking at classwork.
Now the Brewers are on another winning streak. Having begun the season with a crushing 2-8 record, they have won eight straight games, salvaging the last game of their series at St. Louis, sweeping the Giants and Cubs, and beating the Padres in the first of a three-game set at PetCo Park. Is this the real Brewers, or a year from now will some hapless teenager of 2014 be staring at the back of Ryan Braun's baseball card, failing to make a connection between the way a team on a streak and first love can fool you?
The most impressive aspect of the Brewers' current winning streak is that they are winning without Corey Hart or Aramis Ramirez. Brewers first basemen are hitting .212/.274/.379, their third basemen .212/.250/.364. Alex Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt have been deeply involved in the destruction of both positions, and one wonders what Doug Melvin's rationale is for keeping low-profile prospects Hunter Morris (first base) and Stephen Parker (third base) at Triple-A Nashville -- neither is a first-division starter in the best-case scenario, and whereas neither has hit in a way that clamors for a promotion, there's something to be said for rolling the dice on upside instead of settling for mediocre known quantities.
Gonzalez and Betancourt are .246/.291/.398 and .266/.290/.393 career hitters, respectively, and are well past the point of surprising, but a kid just might. Hart won't be back until the end of May, and Ramirez's return date is still up in the air, so there is plenty of time for the Brewers to experiment. The Brewers have hit .240/.304/.465 during the winning streak. The power production is impressive -- they've twice hit three home runs and hit two three times -- but the lack of on-base capability will still be a problem long after the long-ball frequency slows.
More credit is due to the pitching staff, which has allowed just 2.96 runs per game during the streak. None of the starters has exactly dominated, but they've been quietly competent. It still takes some projection to see an ace here -- Yovani Gallardo certainly has that ability, but isn't consistent at that level, and Wily Peralta might get there some day, but isn't there now. That said, mere competency can be good enough for a team with a good enough offense -- if you will forgive me for flashing back to 1987 yet again, the Minnesota Twins won the World Series with a staff arguably no better than the Brewers' is this year -- they got a great season from Frank Viola and one of Bert Blyleven's lesser campaigns. The famous closer was miserable, and everyone else was soup of the day. The offense was probably about equal to what the Brewers will end up with when they recover their health/jettison the dead weight. Aided by a little luck (they outplayed their Pythagorean record by six games) and a weak division, they were able to go all the way.
Carlos Gomez (Mike McGinnis)
The Brewers aren't so lucky as to be in a weak division; the Reds and Cardinals are experienced opponents backed by well-run organizations, and the Pirates have again opened the season looking like a better ballclub than they probably are. With Ryan Ludwick hurt (Reds left fielders have hit .209/.253/.291 in his absence) and the middle relievers turning some shaky performances, the Reds are almost certainly weaker now than they will be in the future, while the Cardinals have gotten strong pitching from their starting rotation but have struggled in the bullpen and have yet to find consistency on offense. Chances are they will straighten out both problems before too long.
That brings us back to the third-place Brewers. They stumbled out of the gate, but the current winning streak has put them right back in the thick of things. It might not last: once they're off their current west-coast swing (the trip ends with Sunday's game against the Dodgers), they'll play 20 of their next 25 games against the Pirates, Cardinals, and Reds. It's the kind of stretch that can make a club or break it.
As a breed, general managers are regrettably similar to the normal humans from which they evolved, and require some kind of deadline to bring their issues into focus. Thus is the early part of the season frittered away as if it somehow mattered less than the late part of the season, and matters that should be urgent wait for July 31. The Brewers got a bad deal this spring, losing their first-string first baseman, Hart, and his replacement, Mat Gamel. Then Ramirez went down with the most obvious replacement, Taylor Green, already out for the year. The outfielders have stepped up, and Jean Segura has been surprisingly productive as well, but they need more.
First base is, at least on paper, the easiest position to fill, but sometimes an organization can get caught in a shortage there. Yet, the minors are teeming with players who would be considered sub-standard first-base bats under normal circumstances, but also qualify as steak when looked at by a starving man. The Brewers are that starving man. Permit me one last flashback: The team's first baseman back then was Greg Brock. He had been brought in to replace Cecil Cooper, probably still the franchise first baseman. Brock just wasn't a championship-quality first baseman. Then they went back to the same source (the Dodgers) and tried Franklin Stubbs. That didn't work out either. Somewhere in there was an elephantine prospect named Joey "The Whale" Meyers. He went "glub."
Thus, despite some big years from John Jaha, Richie Sexson, Prince Fielder, and more, I still sometimes think of the Brewers as that team that just pretends to have a first baseman. It would be a shame if they picked this year to answer to that description for real.