Bold trades pushed Brewers to division crown

Bold trades pushed Brewers to division crown

Bold trades pushed Brewers to division crown
MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers' first division crown in nearly three decades was forged from the top in December. Sensing his club was only a serviceable starting staff from being a contender, general manager Doug Melvin parted with five premium prospects in the span of two weeks to swing two trades nobody saw coming.

Nine months later, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum are preparing to pitch in the postseason for the first time, and the Brewers are champions of the National League Central.

"This was the plan," said principal owner Mark Attanasio. "This is everything we hoped for."

It's Milwaukee's first division title since 1982, sealed on Friday with the Brewers' 4-1 win over the Marlins at sold-out Miller Park and the Cardinals' loss to the Cubs in St. Louis.

Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun accounted for all of the Brewers' runs with homers, but Braun was the first to say that this was a title won with pitching. It came at a price; Attanasio approved the addition of about $17.5 million in 2011 payroll for Greinke and Marcum, plus another $5 million in the July trade for reliever Francisco Rodriguez.

The result of those bold trades was a pitching staff that has transformed the Brewers from an offensive team to one that won with arms. Milwaukee owns a 2.96 ERA since the All-Star break, the best in baseball, including Yovani Gallardo's 7 1/3-inning, one-run, 11-strikeout gem in Friday's clincher.

"This all started with starting pitching," Braun said. "It's the reason we were in the game tonight. Yo throw the ball incredibly, again, 7 1/3 dominant innings, to put us in position to get some runners on base and have some meaningful at-bats to win the game.

"Then it goes to our bullpen, which has been incredible, and then guys like Prince hitting another big home run tonight. He's been as good as anybody in baseball. For all of us to come through in this game, it's fitting."

They certainly did not cruise to the clinch. The Brewers began new manager Ron Roenicke's tenure with Greinke, right fielder Corey Hart and catcher Jonathan Lucroy on the disabled list, lost four straight games to begin the season and then endured a seven-game losing streak in May that dropped the team into fifth place.

The turnaround may have began in St. Louis on May 7, when Gallardo took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of a 4-0 win. A 5-1 homestand followed, jump-starting a stretch in which the Brewers won 23 of 31 and surged into first place.

"We had some work to do," Roenicke said. "We didn't start that well, and then, all of a sudden, we turned it on. I don't know if there was a turning point, but when we came back off the the seven-game losing streak and started winning games, they got confident. When they got confident, we knew we could win this division."

The Brewers are in the postseason for only the fourth time in a franchise history that dates back 43 seasons, to the Seattle Pilots' lone season at Sick's Stadium. That 1969 season was rather sick, with only one .300 hitter -- 23-year-old Greg Goossen batted .309 in only 157 plate appearances -- and only 64 wins.

The Brewers were bound for Milwaukee the following April, bought in bankruptcy court by a former Milwaukee Braves fan named Allan H. "Bud" Selig. In 1974, the franchise drafted a shortstop named Robin Yount, and in '77, another named Paul Molitor. In '78, the Brewers won 93 games, a jump from a 67-win season the year before.

By 1981, they broke through. The Brewers won the second half of a season shortened by a strike and hosted the Yankees in baseball's first divisional playoff to decide the champion of the American League East. The Brewers lost the first two games of the best-of-five series, won the next two at Yankee Stadium, then fell in a decisive Game 5.

They were back again in 1982, winners of an AL East race decided on the final day of the season. Bolstered by the additions of catcher Ted Simmons and pitchers Pete Vuckovich and Rollie Fingers, the Brewers beat the Angels in the AL Championship Series and took the Cardinals all the way to a World Series Game 7.

It would be 26 years before the Brewers made it back to the playoffs. The 2008 club was led again by drafted and developed players, Fielder and Braun at the head of that home-grown pack, and again bolstered by a bold midseason trade. Left-hander CC Sabathia carried Milwaukee to the NL Wild Card on his broad back, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA for Milwaukee and completing seven of his 17 starts. He made four consecutive starts on short rest, including his loss in Game 2 of the NL Division Series against the Phillies.

Philadelphia wound up winning the best-of-five series in four games, the first of the four postseason series in Brewers history that did not go the distance.

Three years later, the Brewers are back.

"This is the first time we've won a division, so I think we'd also like to get through the first round of the playoffs and go from there," Attanasio said. "For tonight, we're just going to enjoy the victory, the clinch and the NL Central title."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. 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.