Brewers' finish doesn't match strong start
MILWAUKEE -- The cliché is uttered in every clubhouse, every season, usually with a healthy dose of hope: It's not how you start, it's how you finish.
There are many more original ways to describe the Milwaukee Brewers' 2014 season, but none would come close to matching the accuracy of that old adage. A team that charged to the top of the standings in April with a 20-7 start and held first place in the National League Central for 150 consecutive days all the way into September crashed down the stretch. The Brewers were eliminated from the division race on Sept. 21, though their slim postseason hopes extended into the final week of the season.
Two losing streaks doomed the Brewers' season, one in each half. They went 1-11 from June 29-July 12, needing a win in the final game before the All-Star break to avoid falling out of first. They held onto that position until a brutal 3-16 stretch from Aug. 20-Sept. 9 dropped the team from 2 1/2 games ahead of the rest of the NL Central to four games out of first.
"Our meetings are all about the dips, and how we can avoid those," general manager Doug Melvin said. "And last year we had a 6-22. I want to know why. Mark [Attanasio, the Brewers' principal owner] wants to know why."
Record: 82-80, third in the National League Central
Defining moment: If there was one turning point game during the Brewers' August and September slide, it was the Aug. 27 affair at Petco Park, where the Brewers lost a heartbreaker to the Padres that prompted a rare outburst against the umpires from manager Ron Roenicke. He was furious about a couple of ball/strike calls from Triple-A callup Mark Ripperger that contributed to Francisco Rodriguez surrendering a tying home run in the ninth inning of an eventual 10-inning loss. Instead of adding a game to their lead over the rest of the division and enjoying an off-day following a road series victory, the Brewers absorbed the second of what would become nine consecutive losses.
"This one definitely hurts," said Rodriguez that night, speaking prophetic words. "There's no question about it."
What went right: The most maddening thing about the Brewers' finish was the way they started, with a 7-0 opening road trip during a nine-game winning streak. The Brewers had the best record in baseball when they took a day off on April 24, and still owned the National League's best record all the way through July 11, which happened to be the same night the Brewers learned of the tragic death of shortstop Jean Segura's infant son. Getting off to a good start was a major focus of Melvin and his staff, after the Brewers endured difficulties in recent Aprils and Mays.
"Everybody said, 'You've got to get off to a good start [but] you've got a tough schedule," Melvin said. "Well, we did. So what are we going to say next year -- 'Let's not worry about a good start; let's have a good finish?' Did we grind our guys too much? Play them too much? I don't know. Braun, Gomez, Ramirez all spent time on the DL, right? That's 15 games [each]."
What went wrong: While all phases of the team went sour during the second losing streak, the common denominator throughout the second half was the Brewers' disappearing offense. Only the Reds and Braves scored fewer runs per game after the All-Star break. During the final road trip, Roenicke suggested the Brewers may have to insist on a more patient approach from their aggressive hitters, but Melvin wondered about the wider suppression of scoring around baseball."
"One of the things that's down is hitting," Melvin said. "[On Sept. 22] there were six shutouts in baseball, in 12 games. Fourteen of the 24 teams scored three runs or less. So we're looking at, 'if offense is down 10 percent and a player's performance is down 10 percent, is that a coaching thing? Is that a player thing?'"
The Brewers will spend the winter trying to figure it out.
Biggest surprise: When the bullpen door swung open on Opening Day, it was Rodriguez, not Jim Henderson, who emerged for a ninth-inning save. Henderson, who had assumed the job amid John Axford's rough opening week in 2012, had a poor Spring Training, and as part of their bid to start hot, the Brewers made a change that surprised even players on the field. Rodriguez responded with an All-Star-caliber campaign, moving into baseball's all-time top 10 in saves. He will be a free agent after the season.
Hitter of the Year: Jonathan Lucroy put together what will likely be a top-five NL MVP season, breaking Ivan Rodriguez's record for doubles by a catcher and emerging as the Brewers' most professional hitter. He joined Lyle Overbay and Aramis Ramirez as the only Brewers to log at least 50 doubles in a season, and added a pair of run-scoring doubles during an All-Star Game start for good measure. Ted Simmons is the only other Brewers catcher ever to start an All-Star Game.
Pitcher of the Year: Tough call. Kyle Lohse was victimized by a team-high seven blown saves, but struggled in August after spraining his ankle. Matt Garza was good when healthy, but spent a month on the disabled list. We'll give Wily Peralta the nod for taking a big step forward in his second full season. When the Brewers reached their emotional high point of the season on Aug. 17, finishing a sweep of the Dodgers, it was Peralta leading the way. He was tied for the Major League lead in victories at that point, and while Peralta fell of that pace when the Brewers started sliding as a team, he still turned in a quality season, upping his strikeout rate and lowering his walks and ERA.
Rookie of the Year: Jimmy Nelson was the only rookie to play a significant amount of time for the Brewers. He didn't fare particularly well in the Major Leagues, but his first half at Triple-A Nashville offers hope of future success. Nelson, 25 and Milwaukee's Minor League Pitcher of the Year, was 10-2 with a 1.46 ERA in 17 games (16 starts) at Triple-A Nashville, with 114 strikeouts and 32 walks in 111 innings. At the time of his promotion to Milwaukee on July 11, Nelson led the Minor Leagues in ERA, ranked third in the Minors in strikeouts and he tied for the Pacific Coast League lead in wins.