Not long after Doug Melvin took over the job as Brewers general manager, he was stopped on the street. "Why would you take this job?" the man asked. "You like cheese and beer?"
"I like cheese and beer, but that's reason number two," Melvin replied. "Reason number one is that I like the challenge, and I love baseball."
It had been a decade since the Milwaukee Brewers -- the stepchildren of the Seattle (Ball Four) Pilots had finished with a winning record. And it wasn't until 2007 that they again topped the .500 mark. The next year, Melvin made the bold move for CC Sabathia, which took them into the playoffs for the first time since Robin Yount and those great Brewers got to the seventh game of the 1982 World Series.
Then in the offseason before 2011, Melvin again boldly traded prospects for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.
"We gave up a lot to Kansas City," said Melvin. "Jake Odorizzi's just coming up, and I'm certain will be really good. But those trades gave us a chance to win."
And they did, finishing 96-66 and in first place in the National League Central, beating Arizona in the NL Division Series before falling to the Cardinals in six games in the NL Championship Series.
Prince Fielder left for free agency, and Melvin knew it might be a retooling season. On July 27, the Brewers were nine games under .500 and struggling to stay within sight of the Reds. The starting pitchers were 29-29, with a 4.07 ERA, so Melvin made the decision not to take a Draft choice for Greinke and traded him to the Angels for three young players after 52 starts for Greinke in a Brewers uniform.
And Tuesday, after beating the Pirates, those Brewers starting pitchers were on a 22-12 run, the team had won 21 of 27 and was 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals for the second NL Wild Card spot. Greinke was brought in to be the ace, but he wasn't going to pass up the free-agent process. So Yovani Gallardo took over the role.
With 6 2/3 shutout innings Tuesday that helped the Brewers to pass the Pirates in the standings, Gallardo's post-Greinke record is now nine starts, an 8-0 record, a 2.68 ERA, 8.96 strikeouts per nine innings and quality starts in eight of those nine, bringing his season total to a league-leading 25. "He's really taken over," said Melvin.
Even with the loss of Fielder, the Brewers were expected to be formidable offensively. They are. They lead the league in runs and homers (184). They're third in on-base percentage, second in OPS (.765 to .762); Colorado leads, and while Miller Park is hitter-friendly, it is not Coors.
Ryan Braun's 40 homers and .990 OPS will put him in the NL MVP Award discussion, if writers don't invoke the presumed-guilty morality clause. Rickie Weeks has had a big finish. Hey, Norichika Aoki has a .792 OPS.
But what is remarkable is that they've seen Sabathia and Greinke leave and not only is their pitching holding them in, but they also appear to be building a pitching foundation. Marco Estrada has made the second-most starts on the club. Mike Fiers is 9-8 in 20 starts. Then along comes a 21-year-old kid named Wily Peralta throwing 96-mph sinkers and laying out three quality starts to create a buzz among scouts.
"If there is one strength to our organization, it's pitching depth," Melvin said. "In that way, we're in pretty good shape."
Mark Rogers was throwing 96-97 before he was shut down, but he looks to be in next season's rotation after overcoming two shoulder operations and a nerve problem. Johnny Hellweg, the tall right-hander who came over in the Greinke deal, has been throwing 96-98 in Double-A and projects as a starter -- or even a closer. They also have pitching prospects Tyler Thornburg, Hiram Burgos, James Nelson, Taylor Jungmann and Jed Bradley waiting in the wings.
It's all been turned around in a hurry. It may be too late, but the Brewers, out of it the day they traded Greinke, are again relevant and in the race, with an organization filled with pitching that makes their longtime fanbase believe that the club will remain relevant in the NL Central for the next few years.
The cheese and the beer are good, but having baseball relevant in Milwaukee is the reason Doug Melvin took the job in the first place.