The 2011 Brewers continued Sunday to carry their success with them into the postseason, defeating the Arizona Diamondbacks, 9-4, to take a 2-0 lead in their National League Division Series. The teams travel to Arizona now to resume the series on Tuesday. The D-backs have specialized in comebacks this season. They are a scrappy group, infused with the competitive attitude by their manager, Kirk Gibson. But this Milwaukee club is intelligent enough, individually and collectively, to take nothing for granted.
Why has the 2011 Milwaukee team separated itself from the 2008 group? It won a division, becoming the first Milwaukee team since, of course, 1982 to do that. The 2008 team reached the postseason as the NL Wild Card team.
The 2011 team set a franchise record with 96 victories, breaking the record held by the 1982 team and the 1979 Brewers. The 2008 team won 90 games. But as the postseason unfolds, this team has pitching that is vastly superior to that of the 2008 Brewers.
The 2008 team was carried into the postseason by CC Sabathia, but by the time those Brewers made the postseason, Sabathia was worn down by repeatedly pitching on short rest. The Brewers' second best starter in 2008, Ben Sheets, was unavailable due to injury.
The Brewers' Game 1 starter in the 2008 Division Series against Philadelphia was Yovani Gallardo, who was making just his second start after coming back from knee surgery. He took the loss in that game, although he gave up no earned runs. This postseason, a healthy Gallardo dominated the D-backs in Game 1 of this series.
The 2008 Brewers lost the NLDS in four games. The outcome was virtually a foregone conclusion when the Brewers started Jeff Suppan in the decisive Game 4.
The current club has a stronger, deeper rotation than its 2008 counterpart. And the 2011 Brewers have one of the best bullpens in the game; again, containing both quality and quantity, finishing up with closer John Axford, who has converted 44 consecutive save opportunities, including one in Game 1 of the NLDS.
Plus, the regular players who were on the 2008 team have matured, improved, moved forward. By their regular-season performance this year, they earned home-field advantage in the first round and now have been making that edge pay.
"The big opportunity was to open up here at home instead of on the road," Ryan Braun said. "We've definitely played well the first two games. I think we were more confident coming into the postseason. And we've executed better the first two games."
"I think in '08 we kind of limped into the playoffs, we were kind of struggling late," Corey Hart said. "And I think ... the nervousness was always there. We were always kind of worried about winning games and what might happen.
"This year we have confidence, we're a better team as a whole. We feel like, when we go out there, we have a much better chance to win."
The 2011 Brewers' pitching made this club better in the regular season, and now gives them a genuine opportunity to make a postseason run.
It is postseason success that defines a team, which is why the verdict can't completely be in on the 2011 Milwaukee team. The best regular-season team in this century was the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who set an American League record with 116 victories. But those Mariners lost the AL Championship Series to the Yankees in five games and, thus, are not in attendance when the discussion gets around to the greatest teams of all time.
If the 2011 Brewers make a postseason run, then they could be a full-fledged part of the discussion as the best team in franchise history. And that is saying an immense amount in this case. The 1982 Milwaukee team had four future Hall of Famers on it: Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Don Sutton and Rollie Fingers. Even now, the members of that team will insist that they would have won the World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals, but for the fact that Fingers was injured.
In any case, the 2011 Brewers should have moved well beyond any lingering comparisons with the 2008 Milwaukee team. These contemporary Brewers have installed themselves as the second best team in franchise history. And they have at least given themselves the opportunity to become even more than that.