"It's a letdown, just because [last year] was so much fun," said first baseman Prince Fielder, who is having one of the best seasons in Brewers history but would trade it for another postseason ticket. "It's a good experience to feel what that feels like. It makes you, every year, want to go out and play hard."
Now they'll be relegated to spoilers over the last days of the season. After finishing their series against the Cubs on Wednesday, the Brewers face a trio of contenders in the Phillies, Rockies and Cardinals to end the season. The Cardinals will likely have clinched the NL Central long before the Brewers get to St. Louis.
"It's unfortunate," Fielder said. "All we can do is play the last games and see what happens. If we're out of it, that's fine, but we get paid to play hard. We're going to do that, regardless."
The Brewers reported to Spring Training on the heels of their best season since losing Game 7 of the 1982 World Series. Bolstered down the stretch by sensational starter CC Sabathia, the Brewers won the NL Wild Card on the final day of the regular season before falling to the eventual World Series champion Phillies in the Division Series.
It was a significant step forward for the Brewers, especially since they returned all eight of their positional starters for 2009 and four of their five starting pitchers, including Gallardo, who had missed almost all of 2008 with a knee injury.
Yet most of the focus was on two pitchers who left via free agency. The Brewers made an offer to Sabathia that would have more than doubled the richest contract in franchise history, but he instead took an even richer megadeal from the Yankees. Ben Sheets, the longest-tenured Brewer, was poised to sign with the Rangers when he failed a physical and needed surgery that would cost him the entire year.
Still, the Brewers thought they had enough, and as late as July 4 they led the NL Central. But midseason injuries to Dave Bush (triceps) and Jeff Suppan (rib cage) taxed the team's pitching depth and sent them on a downward spiral.
"We were depleted in the pitching for two months," said first-year Brewers manager Ken Macha. "That kind of pushes you out of there."
Bush, the pitcher of record in the Brewers' only NLDS win last year, took the loss in Tuesday's elimination game. He was tagged for five earned runs in 1 1/3 innings in his shortest start this year.
"I can obviously speak for myself and for the team as a whole, it's been disappointing," Bush said. "We had hoped to be better this year. You don't always know why it happens, but everybody in this room came into Spring Training confident that we had the team to be more successful than we've been."
It came down to the pitching.
"Yeah," Bush shrugged. "We definitely haven't pitched as well as we wanted to. I remember saying back in the spring that instead of trying to make up for the guys that we lost, we all had to try to do a little bit better. No one in particular was going to have to be incredible.
"It's happened at times, but over the course of the season, speaking in particular for myself, it hasn't been nearly as consistent as we need it to be. We started off well, and had some good stretches here and there, but we didn't have nearly a good enough season."
The offense couldn't overcome the team's deficient pitching, and down years for shortstop J.J. Hardy and outfielder Corey Hart didn't help. The bright spot has been Fielder, who belted his 41st home run on Tuesday and was tied with the Cardinals' Albert Pujols for the NL RBI title.
Fielder has already set franchise records for RBIs and walks, but he would rather be winning.
"It's all about winning," Fielder said. "We'll try as a team to figure out how we can get back to where we were. We have to finish the season strong and try to win as many games as we can. By the time the season's over, we can at least go home with a good taste in our mouths."