Five keys for Brewers this postseason

Five keys for Brewers this postseason

Five keys for Brewers this postseason
The Brewers are division champs for the first time since 1982, and back in the postseason for the first time since winning the National League Wild Card in 2008. This time, they say they're not satisfied simply with being part of the party.

"We're going to judge this season a lot on what happens next," said veteran infielder Craig Counsell, a proud owner of two World Series rings.

That may be a change from last time, when the Brewers won the NL Wild Card on the final day of the regular season, and boarded a flight the next night for Philadelphia and the NL Division Series. Milwaukee snapped a 26-year playoff drought then, but was promptly eliminated, 3-1.

"I think there was more of a thing just to get there last time, because this team had not been in the playoffs for such a long time," Counsell said. "Everyone expects more this time. I always shudder to say that, because it's not like everyone didn't expect to win last time."

Here are five keys for them to win it all this time:

1. The starting pitching: The Brewers have been built around home-grown hitters like Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks, but they have undergone a transformation this season to a pitching team. Milwaukee's six starters led the way by being at or near the top of the NL leaderboard in opponents' batting average this season, and their combined wins trailed only Philadelphia's much-heralded starting group. The rotation was in the top half of the league in ERA, skewed higher by some tough starts in April and May when Zack Greinke was on the disabled list with a rib-cage injury or just returning to the rotation.

The Brewers are the only team in baseball to use just six starting pitchers -- Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, Chris Narveson and unsung swingman Marco Estrada. The five regular starters all have double-digit wins, the first time Milwaukee can boast of that stat since it won the American League East in 1982.

"This all started with starting pitching," Braun said.

2. The co-closers: Francisco Rodriguez may not be particularly happy with his role as baseball's most famous setup man, but it has not showed on the mound. His arrival in an a trade with the Mets the night of the All-Star Game, coupled with Takashi Saito's return from the DL, transformed the Brewers' bullpen into one of the team's greatest strengths. Rodriguez posted a 2.00 ERA in his first 29 appearances for Milwaukee, with 16 holds. His three eighth-inning blown saves turned into Brewers wins, two of them for Rodriguez himself. Behind Rodriguez comes mustachioed second-year closer John Axford, who blew two of his first five save opportunities and then converted his next 41. He set the franchise's single-season saves record with No. 45.

3. The All-Stars in the middle of the order: The group starts with three-hole hitter Braun, who fell just shy of the NL batting title (no Brewer has ever won it) and ended the regular season challenging the Dodgers' Matt Kemp for front-runner status in the NL Most Valuable Player Award race. His two-out, three-run homer on Friday broke a 1-1 eighth-inning tie and helped the Brewers to their NL Central clinch. Braun is followed by Fielder, who has shown no signs at all of being bothered by his pending free agency, and Weeks, who is nowhere near full strength after returning from a severe left ankle sprain, but is nonetheless hitting in the No. 5 hole. Weeks' 2008 playoff experience was cut short by a knee injury, so this is his opportunity to thrive on baseball's biggest stage.

Those core hitters are especially important considering the Brewers have gotten precious little production from the bottom half of the batting order this season, with third baseman Casey McGehee enduring a year-long slump, shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt the definition of offensive inconsistency, and catcher Jonathan Lucroy enduring the peaks and valleys common for a second-year player.

4. The Beast Mode: Will the Brewers be able to maintain their fun-loving personalities in the pressure cooker that is the postseason? They have won by having fun, an attitude that starts with Fielder and was taken to a new level this season by outfielder Nyjer Morgan, aka Tony Plush. On an off-day earlier this season, Morgan asked Milwaukee fans on Twitter how he should fill the time. When someone told him to go fly a kite, Morgan did, and posted the photos to prove it. He shoots virtual arrows in the dugout when Braun and Fielder deliver long home runs, and is one of the most enthusiastic proponents of "beast mode," in which players raise their hands over their heads and gesture to the dugout after getting big hits. It's an ode to the animated movie "Monsters, Inc."

5. The home cooking continues: The Brewers could win it all if they continue to be baseball's best home team. They finished with the Majors' best home record and set a new franchise record for home victories. There is historical precedent here; Milwaukee lost the first two games of the '82 AL Championship Series on the road in Anaheim, then won three straight at County Stadium to advance to the World Series. Two of its three World Series wins came at home. And in 2008, the Brewers' only win in the NLDS against the Phillies came at Miller Park.

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.