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For young Brewers, the future is now

For young Brewers, the future is now

MILWAUKEE -- When the Brewers left Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix at the end of Spring Training, they talked about competing in the National League Central, about breaking through the .500 barrier for the first time since 1992 and maybe, if everything broke right, making a bid for the franchise's first postseason appearance since 1982.

Then came April and early May, and everything changed. Forget about "taking the next step" as a franchise long associated with losing. Forget about .500. Forget about the future.

The Brewers suddenly were 24-10, off to the best start in baseball. All of a sudden, "competing" was not good enough, and the Brewers were expected to win.

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Now.

"People here want it bad," said second-year right-hander Carlos Villanueva, one of the many young Brewers who have filled crucial roles this season. "It's been a long time coming. Of course they are going to be anxious."

But, he added, almost as if reminding himself, "We can't get caught up in that."

They have tried so hard not to get caught up in it all, even while their fans have dived in. The Brewers have already sold out 28 games at Miller Park this season and will set the all-time attendance record when they return home from the season-ending homestand. The team drew a record 2.8 million in 2001, the first year of Miller Park, and sold out 20 games.

How did they get here, to the point of contending? Four Brewers went to the All-Star Game, the most since 1983 when the team was the reigning American League champion. Prince Fielder overcame teammate J.J. Hardy for the home run lead in the National League in May and has held it since, setting a franchise record for homers along the way. Ryan Braun skipped over the usual rookie struggles and emerged as one of the league's most productive No. 3 hitters, and rookie right-hander Yovani Gallardo joined the team mid-season and has stabilized the starting rotation. Closer Francisco Cordero set a franchise record for saves.

Still, the Brewers have taken a circuitous route to their current spot in the standings: Starting hot but then doing into a tailspin that seemed to hit rock bottom with a June when they were no-hit in Detroit. Then they suddenly got hot again, cooled, and since the start of August, have engaged in a daily dance with the Cubs and Cardinals.

One step forward, two steps back. And it looks as though it could continue, just as it did in 1982 when the Brewers last played deep into October, to the regular season's final day.

Off to the races

Ace right-hander Ben Sheets pitched a two-hitter on Opening Day to beat the Dodgers, and the Brewers were off. They split a week-long homestand to start the season and fell under .500 at 3-4 after losing their initial road game of the year, but pushed back above .500 two days later and would stay there for nearly five months.

Beginning April 11, when the Brewers finished a postponed game at Florida and then won the regular-scheduled affair, the team won 21 of 27 games, capping that stretch by winning 10 of 11 to push 14 games over .500. They went to New York, where the national media was waiting, on top of the standings and feeling on top of the world.

"People see you now and say, 'You're a Brewer, keep up the good work!'" reliever Matt Wise said at the time. "In the past, it was like, 'You're a Brewer?' And they made a face and you would kind of slowly duck away.

"We all do see the big picture. But just like we've said in the past when we've struggled, we just concentrate on tomorrow. Nothing changes. There have been a lot of teams that dominated April and May, and then come October they're watching on TV with everybody else. Obviously, a good start helps you get to the playoffs, but no one has ever got to the playoffs in May."

Wise's words proved prophetic, because the Brewers were about to take a dive.

Tough road

From 24-10 the Brewers fell with a thud to 34-30, losing 20 of 30 games despite the late-May addition of rookie third baseman Braun, the organization's top offensive prospect. Manager Ned Yost said Braun would have made the team out of Spring Training had he been able to throw the baseball accurately across the diamond.

The 20th of those 30 losses felt like rock bottom. The Brewers were no-hit by Detroit's Justin Verlander on June 12.

The seagulls that circled Comerica Park that night -- Brewers infielder Tony Graffanino actually swung at one in the first inning, confusing it for a Verlander pitch -- might as well have been vultures, because the slumping Brewers appeared to be in real trouble.

"For me to sit here and say, 'A loss is a loss...'" said Yost, finishing his thought with a shrug. "I don't think anybody likes to be no-hit. We go home feeling a lot better after losing 4-0 with one hit than losing 4-0 with no hits. If you want real honesty, that's the case."

Instead of folding, the Brewers tipped their caps to Verlander and moved on. Bill Hall hit a huge go-ahead home run the next day for the first of four straight Brewers wins, and the team won 12 of 14 games immediately following the no-hitter. They hit the road for the final trip before the All-Star break again feeling good, having climbed back to a season-high 14 games over .500 and briefly, during an Interleague series against Kansas City, taking a franchise-record 8 1/2-game lead in the National League Central. The 1982 Brewers, who went all the way to a seventh game in the World Series, never led their division by more than 6 1/2 games.

Once again, the road brought the Brewers back to earth. The team dropped seven of 10 away games to finish the first half, then started the second half with a 6-4 homestand -- only to lose seven of 10 on a road trip after that.

It continued an unfortunate trend for Yost's Brewers, who owned the NL's worst road record in 2006 and are again among the worst in 2007.

Still in it

On Aug. 17, the Brewers committed four errors in a loss to the Reds, marking the first time since April 20 that they were not in first place or at least in a virtual tie for it. Eleven days later, the Brewers lost the opener of a showdown series in Chicago and dropped into third place for the first time since April 9, back when they were 3-4.

"You have to play until the season is over," said Jeff Suppan, the biggest free-agent acquisition in team history. "You have to keep playing. That's the bottom line. It's a situation where we have to make subtle changes or whatever, and we're doing that. It's not for lack of effort. We're just coming up short."

They appear to have made the adjustment, because the Brewers played better in September. So did the division-leading Cubs, and with a Cardinals fade, Chicago and Milwaukee have emerged as the favorites to represent the division in the postseason.

It will not be easy, but it is certainly possible that the Brewers will be that team. That's a step forward from recent results.

And the good news is that Fielder, Braun, Hardy, Gallardo, Villanueva & Co. will be together for a while.

"Look what these kids have done this year, and just imagine what they're going to do the next couple of years, honed, so to speak, through these experiences," Yost said. "I enjoy watching these kids develop, I enjoy watching these kids have success now, and I enjoy watching them go through what we're going through this year, because I know what it's going to do for them. We're just scratching the surface of what we're going to accomplish."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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