Crew has much to look forward to in second half

Crew has much to look forward to in second half

Crew has much to look forward to in second half
CHICAGO -- So what if it feels like spring has yet to arrive in Wisconsin? The calendar says it's almost summer, and that means it's time for the pennant races in Major League Baseball to take shape.

So while we wait for the summer-like temperatures to arrive, here is a six-pack of things to look forward to at Miller Park this summer:

1. The Brewers look like contenders

They never really contended in 2009, when a nine-game losing streak in mid-May took them out of the race. The Brewers never climbed higher than third place over the final five months of the season.

They appeared headed for a similar fall this year, when the Brewers lost seven in a row from April 30-May 6 that left them in fifth place, 5 1/2 games out of first. But Zack Greinke won his first Brewers decision the next night and began a stretch in which the team went 24-8, the best record in baseball in that month-long span.

"So far, it's better than I ever could have imagined," Greinke said. "It's fun to watch us play. The pitching staff is pitching better than I could have imagined. The defense is doing better. It feels good."

2. The starting rotation

The Brewers paid high prices to land both Greinke and Shaun Marcum in December trades, but so far it's paying off. After ranking last in the National League in starting pitching in 2009 and next-to-last in 2010, the Brewers ranked 10th with a 3.70 ERA through the first 10 weeks of 2011, and eighth with a .246 average against.

Marcum has been solid from the start, and Greinke has steadily improved after missing the first month of the season with his Spring Training basketball injury. Good starting fives feed off each other, and Brewers manager Ron Roenicke sees that from his squad.

"I really like the way they talk, they mingle, they razz each other, they push each other," Roenicke said. "That's really healthy for a pitching staff. They're always talking about something."

In their last 36 games through Yovani Gallardo's no-decision on Tuesday, Brewers starters were 19-5 with a 3.24 ERA, with 25 "quality starts" of at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs. The starters were 29-15 (.659) overall, the best winning percentage of any rotation in the Major Leagues.

"When you get on a roll like this, your confidence can only go up," second baseman Rickie Weeks said. "The biggest thing is we can relax, really. A lot of times they're giving you three or four shutout innings [in a row], and that gives your offense a chance to do some of the things we want to do."

Said outfielder Ryan Braun: "This pitching staff is a great story. They've been huge for us."

3. The ball is about to fly

Warm weather at Miller Park usually portends well for the hitters. Those doubles in the gap tend to turn into home runs.

"The ball does seem to carry better in the summer, but every day is different," Braun said. "It's something we always look forward to, that's for sure."

The Brewers have already been hitting home runs in bunches. Entering Wednesday, Milwaukee hitters had combined for 76 homers, second in the NL to Arizona's 78. Only six NL teams had no more than 60.

That power means the Brewers almost always have a chance to stage a comeback.

"Every game, you're in it," Greinke said. "Even if you give up a couple of runs, you know you're going to get a couple more. Everyone has been playing good. It's more fun watching the game knowing it's going to be a clean baseball game."

4. Tony Plush

Nyjer Morgan's alter ego is as much a hit in Milwaukee as Morgan himself. How many big league outfielders wear argyle socks under their uniform every day? Morgan shared his wardrobe choice on Twitter, where he interacts with fans as @TheRealTPlush.

"They're breaking me in real nice to the Brew City," Morgan said. "I kind of want to do some more things on the field that will help this team win, and then they'll love me even more. Being able to talk to people on Twitter has been cool. You don't want to tell them everything, but it gives people a good little outlook on your personality.

"Plush thrives being with a solid unit. Plush hasn't had this much fun in the game since he came over to the 414."

That's Milwaukee's area code.

The city got its best look at Tony Plush on June 8, when Morgan delivered a game-winning hit against the Mets and admitted in an epic postgame interview with FS Wisconsin that he didn't know it was the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game.

Teammates watched the performance over and over in the clubhouse the next day.

"How can you not laugh at him?" third baseman Casey McGehee said. "You look at him, and he's just a ball of energy. Even if you look at last night, he didn't say anything bad, it's just funny and it's really not an act, it's just him. You never know what's coming out of that guy's mouth. He's entertaining, for sure."

5. Doug Melvin always has a move up his sleeve.

The Brewers' veteran GM was quiet last summer, but that's only because the Brewers were out of the race. In 2009, he acquired infielder Felipe Lopez, outfielder Jody Gerut and reliever Claudio Vargas before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline to bolster the big league roster. In 2008, of course, he added the sensational CC Sabathia and then veteran infielder Ray Durham in July trades. In 2007, he picked up reliever Scott Linebrink.

What areas might Melvin look to improve this season? The relief corps is a good bet, though the Brewers view Takashi Saito's pending return from the disabled list as equivalent to a midseason trade. When healthy, Saito could be a key piece of the bullpen.

If Melvin looks around the diamond he might consider shopping for a shortstop to replace the offensively challenged Yuniesky Betancourt, but that is a very difficult position to fill. Jose Reyes of the Mets, for example, would command a high price the Brewers might not be able to afford, and many in baseball don't expect New York to deal Reyes in the first place.

6. Prince is still here -- enjoy him

Prince Fielder is making the most of his contract year, leading the Brewers in home runs and RBIs through the season's first 10 weeks. Five-hole hitter McGehee has been slumping for weeks, but it has not seemed to matter.

How much longer will Fielder, the Brewers' first-round Draft pick in 2002, take his hacks in a Brewers uniform? Considering the immense contract he is likely to receive next winter, Milwaukee is viewed as a long shot to retain his services past this season. So Brewers fans might want to enjoy the slugging first baseman while they can.

"I got to see Jose Bautista last year, and what Prince has done has been unbelievable," said Marcum, who joined the Brewers in a December trade with Toronto. "It reminds me of what Jose did last year. Everything he hits is on the barrel, and it's either in the seats or in the gap. He's carried us."

Fielder has not let the occasional questions about his future bother him. He decided early in the season after chats with both Melvin and agent Scott Boras to focus on winning in 2011 instead of where he might land for 2012.

"Prince's attitude is exactly what you want it to be -- it's not an issue," Roenicke said. "All he cares about is winning right now. He knows that if he wins, he's going to have a big year and things will work out."

Fielder was asked just this week during an MLB Network interview whether he might re-sign with Milwaukee. His answer -- let's win the World Series and see what happens.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.