Brewers not ready to throw in towel on 2015
Veteran players who are used to winning must fight temptation to do too much
DENVER -- In Jonathan Lucroy's first full big league season, the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers won the National League Central, knocked off the D-backs in five games in the NL Division Series, and were eliminated in the NL Championship Series by the eventual World Series champion Cardinals.
Not much has changed for the Cardinals since. They have advanced to the postseason each of the past four seasons, and the Redbirds woke up Sunday morning perched atop the NL Central once again.
And then there are the Brewers.
The nightmare that was the final seven weeks of 2014 is still haunting them. A season after becoming the first team to spend 150 days in first place and finish the season outside the top two spots, the struggles continue for the Brewers. They headed into their series finale vs. the Rockies at 20 games below .500, not only 21 games back of the NL Central leading Cardinals, but 7 ½ games behind the fourth-place Reds.
This is a franchise that hasn't finished in last place in the past decade.
"It's not easy when you fail," said Lucroy, "especially when you have gone out and given it everything you've got. When you don't have the results, it is frustrating."
"We're not going to quit," he said. "That's not an option."
It is, however, a challenge -- particularly for a core of Brewers players who have played key roles to the franchise's recent successes.
Hall of Famer George Brett, in the midst of a stretch of the Royals advancing to the postseason seven times in 10 years, talked about the struggles the Royals had late in 1983, eventually finishing 20 games behind the American League West champion White Sox. He said the challenge was the core of that team, including himself, had never played "meaningless games" before. They had never played a game for personal goals, but rather had always been focused on what the team needed to do.
That's part of the puzzle Brewers manager Craig Counsel is trying to solve. It should help that as a player Counsell experienced the highs and lows. In a 16-year playing career, he spent seven seasons on teams with losing records, including a 1998 Marlins team that lost 108 games.
He also enjoyed four postseason appearances, including being a member of the starting lineup for the World Series champion 1997 Marlins -- he scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th of Game 7 -- and the 2001 D-backs during a postseason in which Counsell was the NLCS MVP Award winner.
So he speaks from experience when he says that a season like the one the Brewers are facing now "is more challenging for the veteran player. As a young player, the carrot is in front of them: the chance to prove they belong. The veteran feels the losing harder, because they feel a responsibility for helping lead the way."
And that makes it a grind.
"It's human nature," said Counsell. "They are not robots. You don't just put them out there and point them in the right direction."
For Ryan Braun, there have been physical issues that he has had to deal with in the past couple of seasons, but it's the struggles of the team that eat at him.
"It's a challenge when you have been consistently competitive," said Braun. "It's unique to be as many games out [of first] as we are. It's not something I expected before the season. And it's not something I accept now.
"We expect to be in the race. We have swung the bat well. We have played defense well. We haven't pitched well."
Now comes the real test.
"Human nature, in times like this, is you want to try harder, you want to do something to make a difference," Braun said. "Ultimately you learn that when you try harder, it makes it more challenging."
Current Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle calls it a "man" thing.
"You know, you are driving somewhere and get lost," he has said many times during his managerial career, "and you wife suggests you stop and get directions. `I know where I'm going,' you say, and then you step on the pedal and drive faster. Eventually you slow down, get directions and arrive at your designation."
Brewers right-hander Kyle Lohse can identify. He has been a postseason participant six times, including as a member of the rotation with those 2011 World Champion Cardinals. But he is 3-9 with a 6.30 ERA in 15 starts this season.
"Something you have to fight is trying to do too much," he said. "It is like grasping at sand. The harder you grab the more you slip away."
Lohse, however, is not waving the yellow flag.
"I love to compete, and I love to win," he said. "This is a time the shows your character."