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Braun's big year, Crew's late push highlight 2012

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun speaks often of overcoming adversity in baseball, and 2012 was the ultimate opportunity. From Braun's suspension saga at the start of the year to the team's midseason swoon, it was a season of adversity for a Brewers team that was hoping to continue its success from 2011.

Instead, it was a step back, though there were positives along the way. Braun beat his suspension and put together another MVP-caliber season. Corey Hart proved he never forgot how to play first base. Norichika Aoki made a successful jump from Japan to the Major Leagues. And the Brewers found some pitching gems at Triple-A Nashville who are going to be a big part of the plan in 2013.

Before we move into the new year, here's a look back at five storylines that defined 2012:

5. Mr. Baseball is honored

The Brewers announced during Spring Training that broadcaster and funnyman Bob Uecker would be immortalized with a statue outside Miller Park. Which begged the question: What took so long?

"I didn't have enough for the down payment," Uecker deadpanned.

Robin Yount and Paul Molitor are in the Hall of Fame, but no Brewer is more beloved than Uecker, who drew a star-studded crowd for the Aug. 31 unveiling of a bronze likeness that stands beside similar tributes to Yount, Molitor, Henry Aaron and MLB Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig. Bob Costas emceed, Aaron, Selig and broadcast executive Dick Ebersol spoke, Aaron's wife, Billie, performed an impromptu song and "Tonight Show" legend Doc Severinsen led the band.

"We found Bob the spot he was destined for, sitting behind a microphone, bringing the Brewers to their fans day in and day out," Selig said, "and becoming, as it turned out, the best ambassador that this franchise could have ever hoped for. He's been the voice and face of this franchise -- think about this -- for four decades."

4. No relief

The bullpen was supposed to be a Brewers strength in 2012, considering the unit returned almost entirely intact from its sensational finish in 2011. Instead it was a weakness, to the tune of an MLB-worst 4.66 ERA and 29 blown saves. After the season, Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Veras, Kameron Loe and Manny Parra were all cut loose.

John Axford had his own share of struggles, losing the closer's job in July before reclaiming it down the stretch. But his first sign of trouble was a source of smiles on May 11, when the Cubs snapped Axford's club-record streak of 49 consecutive saves, but the Brewers rallied to win in extra innings and Axford bolted before the final out because his expectant wife, Nicole, was having contractions.

Axford famously left a note:

"I put my wife into contractions with my performance tonight! The streak is over so now you can talk about it. The luck I've had in the past didn't show up tonight! All I can do is start another streak and keep my head up!

"Cliché ... cliché ... cliché ... another cliché. Gotta go! Love, Ax."

It wound up being the first of nine blown saves for Axford.

3. Bye, bye Zack

The most painful blown saves might have come July 23-25, three consecutive 7-6 losses to the Phillies in which the Brewers squandered a late lead. The losses dropped the Brewers' record to 44-53, and pushed general manager Doug Melvin into "sell" mode.

So on July 29 he dealt Zack Greinke to the Angels, ending the right-hander's brief but colorful tenure in which he never lost a game at Miller Park. He said goodbye to teammates in a quiet clubhouse, and it felt like the Brewers' season was over.

Then the Brewers beat the Nationals, 6-0.

"We're going to go down fighting," catcher Jonathan Lucroy said.

2. The kids fuel a comeback

Lucroy was right, although the Brewers had not hit their low point just yet. That came Aug. 19, after Randy Wolf's 8-0 loss to the Phillies dropped the Brewers 12 games under .500 at 54-66. The Brewers released Wolf days later.

But instead of fading into the winter, the Brewers got hot, winning 24 of their next 30 games. In that span, they went from 12 games under .500 and 12 1/2 games behind the National League's second Wild Card on the morning of Aug. 20 to six games over and only 1 1/2 games out on the night of Sept. 21.

It wasn't until Game No. 159 that the Brewers were eliminated from postseason contention.

"It was amazing, the run that we went on to get into contention," Braun said. "I think that we're all proud of that. Ultimately, we're disappointed we didn't end up back in the postseason, but it certainly wasn't for a lack of effort."

How did they do it? The offense continued to produce -- the Brewers wound up leading the NL in runs, home runs and stolen bases -- and the pitching came around. Young starters Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers were outstanding in their late-season starts, and Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler, plus the resurgence of Axford, helped stabilize the bullpen. The Brewers will rely on all of those pitchers to repeat in 2013.

1. A big season for Braun

The Brewers' biggest storyline was Braun, the 2011 NL MVP who entered 2012 in a state of total uncertainty after testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone. Braun faced a 50-game suspension but mounted an unprecedented appeal, winning by a 2-1 margin on Feb. 23, just as Brewers position players were reporting to Spring Training.

The next day, Braun reported to Maryvale Baseball Park and emphatically declared his innocence. Later in camp, after overcoming a very slow start at the plate, he said this:

"The best thing I can do to move forward is to have success, hope our team gets back to the postseason, continue to do the things I've done over the last five years," Braun said. "That's what I plan on doing. I don't know if I've definitely lost [the fans]. I don't sit here and analyze what people think or have to say when the opinions are based on a lack of information."

The Brewers missed the postseason, but Braun, slowly but surely, did win back some fans. He led the NL in home runs (41), total bases (356), runs (108) and OPS (.987) while tying for the lead in extra-base hits (80). He also ranked among the leaders with 112 RBIs (second to San Diego's Chase Headley), 191 hits (second to Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen), a .595 slugging percentage (second to Miami's Giancarlo Stanton) and a .319 batting average (behind NL MVP Buster Posey and McCutchen).

Braun also tied for ninth in the league with 30 stolen bases, marking the 11th season in Major League history of at least 40 homers and 30 steals.

He finished second in NL MVP balloting to Posey, finishing no lower than fourth on any of the 32 ballots cast by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

"I think for all of us, we're excited about the way that we've played," Braun said. "We're excited about some of the guys that have come up and really performed well for us down the stretch. Certainly, we feel good about our team heading into next year, for sure."

Milwaukee Brewers, Ryan Braun