- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Milwaukee’s image as a “Little Baseball Burgh that Could” doesn’t quite jibe with the attendance figures. Consider: The Brewers rank ninth in the majors with an average of 37,219 fans per game, and they’re about to pass the 3 million mark for the third time in four seasons. That’s an awful lot of bratwursts, pork sliders and chili cheese fries flying out from beneath the heat lamps at Miller Park.
The turnstile count also places the Brewers right in the middle of more-hyped franchises in bigger metropolitan markets. The Los Angeles Angels, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs rank directly in front of Milwaukee in attendance in the fifth through eighth spots. And the Dodgers, Colorado, Texas, Detroit, the Mets and Atlanta fall in line behind Milwaukee at 10-15.
Busch Stadium may get all the love as baseball heaven, but with numbers like these, it’s clear that Wisconsinites sure are partial to their Brew Crew. The combination of ardent fan support and owner Mark Attanasio’s competitive nature makes you wonder about the common assumption that All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder is destined to leave the city once he files for free agency. Yes, Fielder is having a productive walk year and will probably find more lucrative opportunities beyond Milwaukee. But if the Brewers make a deep postseason run and Fielder feels a few pangs of sentimentality and decides to convey them to agent Scott Boras, there’s at least reason to hope for some productive dialogue. Does the name “Jered Weaver” ring a bell?
At the moment the Philadelphia Phillies are Major League Baseball’s best team, and the Brewers rank near the top of a Power Rankings list near you. And the two clubs are taking part in a strangely surreal September event -- a marquee series with nothing tangible at stake. Their game highlighted Thursday night’s action, even though not a whole lot was riding on the outcome. The Phils are now a mind-boggling 44 games over .500 at 92-48, and lead the Braves by 10 games in the National League East. The Brewers have been so-so of late, but they’re 85-60 and lead the Cardinals by eight games in the Central.
Even before the Phillies beat up on Milwaukee starter Chris Narveson en route to a 7-2 victory behind Cole Hamels, it was so quiet that you could hear the Chorizo grunting during the between-innings Sausage Race. What else do you expect on the night of the NFL opener at Lambeau Field? Fans normally cheering for the Brewers were quietly monitoring Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on their mobile devices and iPod apps while the Super Bowl champs were beating New Orleans.
It’s easy to see the Phillies and Brewers butting heads in a classic postseason series because they’re well-balanced clubs with an abundance of pitching. The Phillies lead the majors with a 3.05 team ERA, and Milwaukee is eighth at 3.64. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s starting pitching is now sketchy because of injuries to Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, and the Diamondbacks are still encountering some skepticism after blowing past San Francisco.
Milwaukee’s Ron Roenicke and Philadelphia’s Charlie Manuel, who are probably jockeying for position behind Arizona’s Kirk Gibson in the NL Manager of the Year race, must strike a balance between keeping their players rested yet sharp down the stretch. Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins just returned from a groin injury, Chase Utley is out with a concussion and Ryan Howard is dealing with bursitis in his left heel. Meanwhile, Milwaukee second baseman Rickie Weeks continues to progress in his return from an ankle injury. He’ll add a welcome mix of thump and on-base ability to the Brewers’ lineup.
Questions? We have a few. While the Phillies plan to rely on Ryan Madson, Antonio Bastardo and Brad Lidge at the back end of the bullpen, the Brewers could use more production from the left side of their infield. Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and third baseman Casey McGehee have picked up the pace since the All-Star break, but they still have OPS marks in the .650 to .660 range. While Manuel tries to decide between Roy Oswalt and 11-1 rookie Vance Worley as his fourth postseason starter, the Brewers can only wonder how the ultratalented Zack Greinke will handle the media attention he so loathes on a national stage in October.
At least the Phillies can catch the ball. The Brewers rank seventh in the majors in Baseball Prospectus’ defensive efficiency rankings, but Corey Hart committed the team’s 97th error on Thursday, and center fielder Carlos Gomez didn’t exactly inspire confidence when he circled a Hunter Pence line drive in the gap by way of Kenosha and turned a possible double into a stand-up triple.
The more Plush-damentally sound if occasionally combative Nyjer Morgan plays center field against right-handers. On a positive note, Morgan enjoyed an uneventful, Twitterless, Albert Pujols-insult-free night in the Milwaukee dugout before entering the game on a double switch in the sixth inning.
Both teams have some principals involved in the big award races. Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are duking it out with the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw for the NL Cy Young Award, and Fielder and left fielder Ryan Braun are prime MVP candidates.
If the Phillies and Brewers do meet in the postseason, feel free to file away these matchups for future reference: Braun is a career 9-for-17 against Roy Oswalt. As for Fielder, he’s a career 6-for-10 with a 1.700 OPS against Roy Halladay, and 5-for-6 with a 2.333 OPS versus Cliff Lee. We know that’s an exceedingly small sample size, but it still merits a “what the heck?''
The atmosphere in the teams’ series this weekend will feature a mix of intrigue and fun. If they pass each other’s way in October, it just might be electric.
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