Brewers Back In The Win Column, But Fall Short Of Playoffs

Monday, October 1st 2007, 2:40 pm
By: News On 6

MILWAUKEE (AP) _ For the first time in 15 years, the Milwaukee Brewers can call themselves winners.

But it didn't necessarily feel that way at the end of the season, as the hype of a fast start and hope of a big division lead in June slipped away over the final three months of the season.

When the final out was made, Milwaukee was an October bystander once again.

``We didn't get the division, but it was a pretty good year,'' said MVP candidate Prince Fielder, who became the youngest player in history to hit 50 home runs in a season. ``You can't be bitter all offseason about not making the playoffs. I am just going to have a good offseason and get ready for next year.''

The Brewers met their goals of finishing over .500 for the first time since 1992, playing meaningful games late into September and re-energizing local baseball fans who had grown accustomed to losing.

At 83-79, they finished two games behind the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs.

``We talked years ago about it being a process,'' Brewers manager Ned Yost said. ``You have to get to .500 first, and then go from there. We were hoping to do it all in one year and we missed it by two games. These kids have gained invaluable experience playing with expectations, playing deep into September and it's only going to make them so much better in years to come.''

But despite playing in the weakest division in baseball, the Brewers didn't reach the one goal that really mattered: Making the playoffs.

``I think it's disappointing when you have a chance to make the playoffs and you don't get it done,'' said veteran utility infielder Craig Counsell, a Wisconsin native. ``I don't think there's any way around that. You can point to the future always, but nobody knows what's going to happen next year or the year after that. You feel like you had it in front of you, and we failed.''

The Brewers roared out to a 16-9 record in April and built an 8 1/2-game lead by late June.

But injury-prone staff ace Ben Sheets hurt his finger in July, and it seemed to throw the entire starting staff into a funk. That included the team's major free agent acquisition, Jeff Suppan, who finished the season 12-12 with a 4.62 ERA.

The starters' struggles stretched an already suspect bullpen to its breaking point, except for closer Francisco Cordero.

The offense lived off the longball, as the Brewers led the major leagues with a club-record 231 home runs. Fielder hit 50, and rookie of the year candidate Ryan Braun hit 34 despite not being called up until late May. J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart and Geoff Jenkins also hit 20-plus homers.

But center fielder Bill Hall, one of the team's best offensive players in 2006, hit .254 with only 14 homers. And second baseman Rickie Weeks was sent down to the minors after struggling at the plate _ only to return and hit nine homers in the final month of the season.

The Brewers' biggest offseason question apparently has been answered, as Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio began the final week of the season by saying Yost didn't have to worry about his job.

``Ned is fine,'' Attanasio said.

Yost, who has a contract through 2008 with a club option for 2009, became a lighting rod for criticism as the Brewers' lead slipped away in the second half of the season. Then he kicked off the final week of the season by getting kicked out of three games and suspended for another.

General manager Doug Melvin didn't seem bothered by the fact that his manager wasn't on the bench at the end of four critical games, saying that it was more important for the Brewers to fight back against their losing reputation.

``We don't want to be pushed around, shoved around, taken for granted,'' Melvin said.

Besides, the Brewers took care of that themselves. Yost and catcher Johnny Estrada nearly tangled in a dugout tunnel during a frustrating stretch in early August.

Melvin has several major decisions to make in the offseason.

Cordero, who had 44 saves in 51 chances, will be a free agent and says he wants to stay.

``I love it here,'' Cordero said. ``The Brewers gave me a second chance when I was traded from Texas. I love my teammates, my coaches and everyone associated with this team. I would be more than happy to come back here next year. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.''

But the Brewers are unlikely to pick up their 2008 option for Jenkins, who would make $9 million next season. Jenkins, who has been with the Brewers since 1998, received a warm ovation from Brewers fans on the last game of the season.

``It's happy and sad all at once,'' Jenkins said. ``I have no regrets. I had a wonderful time here. I've played with a ton of great teammates. That's what I will miss the most. These guys were part of my life for so long.''

But even if Jenkins doesn't return, the Brewers will bring back a power-packed lineup. And they're hoping the experience they gained this season will help them handle expectations next year.

``No one expected us to come out like we did at first and we still had a shot at the end,'' Fielder said. ``I am happy about that. I know I can get better and I am going to work hard the whole offseason to come out and improve next year.''