Bullpen woes cost Brewers a return to postseason

  • Associated Press
  • October 5, 2012 - 7:14 AM

MILWAUKEE - The Milwaukee Brewers entered the season wondering whether they could replace the firepower provided by Prince Fielder, who left via free agency to sign with the Detroit Tigers.

The 2012 Brewers scored 55 more runs than the 2011 team that reached the NL Championship Series, but a meltdown by the bullpen during the summer prevented the team from reaching the postseason for a second consecutive year.

"A lot of ups and downs," closer John Axford said.

The year started with a cloud over Ryan Braun, the 2011 NL MVP whose 50-game suspension was overturned during spring training. Braun tested positive for elevated testosterone levels but arbitrator Shyam Das ruled in favor of the Brewers slugger due to chain of custody issues involving the sample.

Braun endured taunts all season long in visiting parks amid questions whether his performance would suffer. Instead, he had an NL-leading 41 home runs and 107 runs scored while batting .319 with 112 RBIs and 30 stolen bases.

"The goal is consistency and longevity," Braun said. "Those are the two biggest challenges in this game that we face. So the goal is to be good and productive year in and year out. The more successful I am the more I'm able to contribute to the team's success and the more fun I have."

General manager Doug Melvin added several players to alleviate the loss of Fielder. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, signed as a free agent from the Chicago Cubs, started slowly but finished with an NL-leading 50 doubles while batting .300 with 105 RBIs.

However, the Brewers couldn't overcome the implosion of their bullpen.

In 2011, the Brewers bullpen blew only 19 saves and one lead when the team was leading after eight innings. That number jumped to 29 blown saves and 11 leads lost this season, with Axford and setup man Francisco Rodriguez struggling in the middle of the year.

The low point may have been a 10-game stretch in July where the Brewers won only a single game. General manager Doug Melvin started shopping ace right-hander Zack Greinke and bullpen coach Stan Kyles was fired.

Greinke was traded to the Los Angeles Angels on July 27 for young shortstop Jean Segura and two pitching prospects, and the Brewers started giving more playing time to inexperienced but talented pitchers to determine whether they could contribute in future years.

By the middle of August, the new-look Brewers became one of the hottest teams in the majors.

Michael Fiers used pinpoint control to pitch effectively for two months before tiring in September. Mark Rogers, the team's No. 1 draft choice in 2004, joined the rotation and pitched well before being shut down with two weeks left in the year.

Top prospect Wily Peralta was recalled in early September and had strong starts in four of his five outings.

In addition, Axford and Rodriguez rebounded and the Brewers went on a 24-6 streak that vaulted them into position to compete for a wild card spot. Milwaukee pulled within 1 1/2 games of the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 21 before fading.

"We all are disappointed we didn't get to the playoffs," manager Ron Roenicke said. "But where we were a couple months ago, to get back in it was really important. And to see the young guys was important.

"Can this team compete and win next year?" Roenicke asked. "Everybody knows we can now."

The young pitchers have left the veterans optimistic about the future.

"I hate to try and figure out what they are going to do next year," said Corey Hart, who hit 30 homers while moving to first base at midseason. "We have so many good arms."

With a few large contracts expiring at the end of the year, the Brewers will have some money to spend, possibly on a veteran starter.

"The biggest key is starting pitching," Braun said. "We have young quality starting pitching through a bunch of guys who won't be making any money. So, it puts the team in a good position, a really good position."

In 2011, Braun said a contract extension through 2020. He said he is happy to be a long-term member of the Brewers.

"This is my sixth year in the major leagues and four of those six years we've been in the pennant race with a week to go," he said. "I've been fortunate enough to go to the postseason twice already. I certainly believe in the direction of the organization."

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