MILWAUKEE -- This city on the western shore of Lake Michigan has been a postcard for the past week, with temperatures in the 70s and the sun shining bright and a breeze off the water. So why were storm clouds hanging over Miller Park, home of the first-place Brewers? "They're flirting w/ biggest choke in MLB history," one fan opined on Twitter.
Another: "The Brewers will be out of first by next weekend. Mark it down." "You could tell there was a little bit of tension there," said closer John Axford, who has a better feel for fan sentiment than most because he is so active on Twitter.
He insisted that most of the messages he'd received were positive. Some were not."People get frustrated only because they're passionate," Axford said. "They love their team here. I think most fans seem to be similar to us; no one is freaking out, no one is getting desperate. We just want to keep playing good baseball for the rest of the season." A win over the Phillies on Sunday certainly helped, with Ryan Braun delivering the winning hit and Axford recording his 42nd save. It snapped the Brewers' losing streak after five games, a timely turnaround considering the team had an off-day Monday. The open date offered a good spot to examine where the Brewers stand with 14 regular-season games to go: They own a 6 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central, with a magic number of nine to clinch Milwaukee's first division crown since 1982. In other words, any combination of nine Brewers wins or St. Louis losses would do it. The more interesting race is with the NL West-leading D-backs, who beat the Dodgers on Monday. Arizona is 86-62, a record identical to that of Milwaukee. The team that finishes with the better record wins the right to open a NL Division Series at home. If they are tied, Arizona would be seeded higher because of its 4-3 season-series record against the Brewers. Barring the Cardinals coming from behind to win the NL Wild Card, the other team would travel to Philadelphia. The Brewers return to work Tuesday with a favorable schedule, beginning with a two-game series against the 69-77 Rockies. It's the first of five remaining series for Milwaukee, none of them against a winning team. "It's not going to get more difficult [than the Phillies], but regardless of who we're playing, everyone is going to want to compete and play us tough," Braun said. "Whether you're competing to try to get to the postseason or to ruin somebody else's chances, it's kind of a fun time of year for all the teams. We certainly expect everyone to give us their best effort." Said Axford: "Nothing is guaranteed." Manager Ron Roenicke mentioned the possibility Sunday of the race going down to the final few days, a scenario that seemed so unlikely only a week earlier, when the Brewers opened a series in St. Louis with a Labor Day win that extended the division lead to 10 1/2 games. Two weeks before that, the Brewers' edge over the D-backs in the race for the second-best record was six games. "The cushion never felt comfortable," veteran starter Randy Wolf said. "Until we're in, you shouldn't be comfortable with any lead. You don't want to sit back and glide into any situation. You want to make sure you're playing well and play as hard as you ever could. "Obviously, we're having a tough stretch right now, but the worst thing you can do is panic. I think we have a good team, and we just have to get back on track and play the kind of baseball we can play." Added Roenicke: "Like Randy said, and he said it well: Nothing is ever comfortable until you win it." The Brewers have some factors working in the favor beyond the soft schedule. The pitching remains the team's greatest strength, with Yovani Gallardo working seven innings on Sunday to position the Brewers for their win. Since July 6, another seven-inning Gallardo win, the Brewers have a Major League-best 41 wins and are tied with the pitching-stacked Phillies for baseball's third-best ERA, at 3.02. The sagging offense got a boost Sunday when Rickie Weeks made his first start since severely spraining his left ankle on July 27 against the Cubs. Weeks was the NL's starting second baseman in the All-Star Game, "and that's really all you need to say," according to infielder Craig Counsell. "He's huge," Braun said of Weeks. "I think it kind of puts everybody in a better position in the lineup. He really lengthens our lineup. He's a dynamic player, he can run the bases and he's a threat. It's really big to get him back." The offense could use a dose of the pre-injury Weeks. The Brewers have not scored more than three runs in any of their last six games, and have scored only 40 runs in September, 25th of the 30 teams. That includes back-to-back eight-run outbursts in Houston on Sept. 3-4. Of course, facing Chris Carpenter, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in consecutive days tends to limit the offense. There's also the concern raised by Sports Illustrated veteran Tom Verducci, that Milwaukee's success might be a mirage. He pointed out that the Brewers have not won a series against a winning team besides the Cardinals since before Memorial Day. Since then, they have lost or split all eight of their series against non-Cardinals teams with winning records: the Reds, Red Sox, Rays, Yankees, D-backs twice, Giants and Phillies. The deceiving part of that stat is that the Brewers have had so few opportunities to test themselves against winning teams. Only three of those non-Cardinals series -- July 18-21 in Arizona, July 22-24 in San Francisco and this past weekend against the Phillies -- have come since the All-Star break. From July 26-Sept. 7, St. Louis happened to be the only winning team on Milwaukee's schedule. This is the kind of minutiae that doesn't make it past the clubhouse door. Inside, the Brewers are not talking about strength of schedule or peaking too soon. They are simply trying to win every day. "We still feel like it's in our hands," Counsell said. "If we play well, then everything will be all right. Beating a good team [Sunday] was a good way to start the rest of the year."