by Tim Muma
Assuming the Brewers are ticketed for a National League Central title - and Tuesday night's events shouldn't sway anyone's opinion - a couple of potential postseason "fatal flaws" showed up in the Crew's 2-1 loss to St. Louis.
Both Cardinals' runs came thanks to errors on the infield - one by Prince Fielder (no surprise) and one by Jerry Hairston, Jr. who is normally sure-handed. Then in the 9th, manager Ron Roenicke completely mishandled the frame once St. Louis gave the Brewers a 1st and 2nd, nobody out gift.
Defense and the questionable decision-making of a rookie manager could mean the difference between an NLDS ouster and a run to the World Series.
Thanks to more advanced statistics and the re-emphasis of pitching in the big leagues, defense is taken a lot more seriously than in the 1990's and the beginning of this century. However, truly gauging a team or individual's value or ability on defense is still a tricky concept because of the almost limitless variables that exist - official scorers' rulings, defensive shifts, bad bounces, line drives vs. slow rollers - the list goes on and on.
Just by any measure, though, most baseball experts recognize that Milwaukee has a below-average defensive club that is truly awful at times - only the Crew's tremendous pitching has helped save the 'D' more embarrassment.
Much like the 2-1 loss on Tuesday, a majority of playoff games tend to be played with both teams scoring less than 5 runs, making one defensive miscue or great play extremely significant.
One can even go back to the 2008 playoffs and see that a dropped throw by Rickie Weeks cost the Brewers an out on a sacrifice bunt, and Mike Cameron failed to corral a fly ball that nicked his leather - both in the 3rd inning. The result was a 3-1 loss as Philadelphia tallied 3 unearned runs in that 3rd inning - all they needed for the victory.
Meanwhile, the Brewers are lacking in most areas in 2011...
1B - Prince Fielder has minimal range, poor/awkward hands and feet, short reach and is below average in scooping balls - even dropping a few thrown balls right at him.
2B - Rickie Weeks (assuming he's healthy) has good range and a strong arm, struggles at times with certain throws and has a tendency to play balls off his hip and display "hard hands."
SS - Yuniesky Betancourt has poor range, unsteady hands and an inconsistent arm - he's been slightly better than in '11 compared to his career, but he's a huge liability at short (Hairston might be a better choice at some point).
3B - Casey McGehee has very limited range with an above average arm, but it is sometimes erratic - sis glove overall is above average, but fans should be nervous with him at the hot corner.
LF - Ryan Braun is athletic and has a strong arm, but he still takes poor routes, throws to the wrong base often, misses the cutoff man frequently and has trouble with certain types of fly balls.
CF - Nyger Morgan is above average as a center fielder and covers plenty of ground, but he too takes some poor routes and short arms plays near the fence - his arm is inconsistently average.
RF - Corey Hart has lost most of his range in the field and has a lot of trouble going back on balls, while his arm seems slightly above average in right field (Carlos Gomez should be back to help with the overall outfield defense).
C - Jonathan Lucroy is improving (especially blocking balls), but he has a ways to go to be completely trustworthy behind the dish - his caught stealing percentage is right at the league average but he has had plenty of issues with his tosses to 2nd.
The defense can be frighteningly bad at times, though they've shown the ability to come up with some great plays. Late inning defensive replacements (Gomez, Craig Counsell, Hairston, Jr.) could be the key to clinching victories in October.
Meanwhile, Roenicke completely mismanaged the 9th inning on Tuesday and the postseason is where a manager can have a major impact as one game - or one inning - can be so valuable.
With Fielder on 2nd and McGehee on 1st, nobody out and the Brewers trailing by a run, Roenicke sat on his hands. Betancourt was at the dish and was asked to bunt - he bunted off of his hands into a force out and should have been doubled up. Then Roenicke pinch hit for Hairston, Jr. (who had 2 hits on the night) with Mark Kotsay who bounced into a game-ending twin killing.
Down a run, at home, with the tying run on 2nd - the manager needs to go all out to try and tie the game first, and possibly win it.
1) Fielder, representing the tying run, should have been pinch run for by rookie Taylor Green. Sure, if you make it to extra innings Fielder is gone - but you have to get there first. No excuse, a faster runner needs to be on second in the 9th.
2) Betancourt has 0 sacrifice bunts on the season and is a poor bat handler. The Cardinals crashed in extremely hard on the bunt, leaving Yuni B. no margin for error (he failed). Veteran Craig Counsell should have pinch hit as he is actually a good bunter and is much better at handling the stick (be mature!) than Betancourt. Thus, if the defense was right on top of Counsell, he can be trusted to fake bunt and slash through the infield.
3) Especially if we assume Counsell gets the runners to 2nd and 3rd, Hairston, Jr. should have kept his at-bat. He has proven time and again he knows how to be an effective situational hitter. He is a guy that will do whatever it takes to get the runner in from 3rd with less than 2 outs. Not to mention, he already had 2 hits on the night - Kotsay could be saved till later when the pitcher's spot came up.
4) Had the Brewers tied the game and gone to the 10th, they may have been out of position players, but they would have had a better defense on the field (Green at 3B, Hairston, Jr. at SS and McGehee at 1st) and a chance to win - the exact opposite of what happened.
Hopefully, this contest is a learning experience for the team and their manager. There's nothing to worry about in terms of the division - if the Brewers go 13-13 the rest of the way, St. Louis would need to go 23-4 just to draw even with Milwaukee.
However, with my mind and eyes on a bigger prize in October, the Brewers showed on August 30 the blemishes that may cost them dearly.
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