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Brewers' crown Prince can do it all
Bonus notes from our MLB on Fox broadcast of the Brewers-Mets game on Saturday . . .
Walking out of Citi Field with Brewers veterans Mark Kotsay and Craig Counsell, I said I couldn’t believe Prince Fielder’s game-tying single, how Prince reached down for a slider that was almost in the dirt and pulled it past the Mets’ diving second baseman, Justin Turner.
Counsell replied that it’s even more amazing that Fielder was the same guy who hit a home run on a two-strike, two-out count in the third inning Saturday, a monstrous upper-deck, three-run shot that appeared certain to go foul, but stayed fair.
Fielder pulled left-hander Chris Capuano’s 89-mph fastball with such force, it didn’t have enough spin to hook foul, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said.
A reporter from New York asked Roenicke if it was the hardest ball that Fielder had hit all season. Roenicke said no, there were at least two others that Fielder hit the same way.
In the ninth, with the bases loaded, one out and the Brewers trailing, 9-8, Fielder did something completely different. But first, he swung through an 83-mph slider from Mets right-hander Manny Acosta, then looked even worse missing a 96-mph fastball to go down 0-2.
Fielder told me afterward that he felt “lost” at that point, but he fouled off a 97-mph fastball, then made like a left-handed Vlad Guerrero to tie the score. Casey McGehee followed with a two-run single, and the Brewers went on to an 11-9 victory, their 21st in the last 24 games.
Fielder’s .306 batting average and .416 on-base percentages would qualify as career-highs. His .564 slugging percentage would be his third best, after his 50-homer season in 2007 and 46-homer season in ’09. He’s on a 36-homer, 122-RBI pace, and has more walks than strikeouts for the first time in his career.
“He’s not a slugger — this guy is a really good hitter,” Roenicke said. “There are not too many power hitters who can also hit .300. But he has a good eye, he walks, he does everything you’d want in a 3-4 hitter.”
Sometimes all in one game.
THOSE WILD AND CRAZY BREWERS
The Brewers’ personality is like no other club’s. They are the anti-Cardinals, joyful instead of joyless, exuding energy. Their dugout erupted after they regained the lead in the ninth, and the players were still exchanging high-fives and hugs when they took the field for the bottom half, almost like a high-school team.
The Cardinals and other opponents have taken occasional offense to the Brewers’ antics in recent years. Roenicke, speaking to the FOX broadcasters before the game, said that while his players are focused when they need to be, they sometimes get carried away.
“It may seem like it’s a free-for-all. I don’t want it be a free-for-all,” Roenicke said. “But with a lot of stuff, I just say, ‘All right.’ I try to pick battles when I think they need to be picked. I bite my lip a lot.”
Roenicke said that he often seeks guidance from Kotsay and Counsell, two veterans who have played for winning teams.
If, for example, an outfielder such as Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez makes a play look a little too flashy, Roenicke will use Kotsay as a sounding board, asking, “Are you OK with that?” If Kotsay says yes, Roenicke will let the moment pass.
To me, the Brewers are good for the game. Baseball, after all, is entertainment, and frankly, the sport could use a little more life. The Brewers rarely intend to be disrespectful; they just play with unrestrained emotion.
What is so bad about that?
NOW ON THE DOWNSIDE . . .
The Brewers’ defense is certain to be a major question if the team reaches the postseason.
Fielder leads all NL first basemen with 12 errors. Casey McGehee leads all NL third basemen with 17. Rickie Weeks remains tied for the lead at second with 12 even though he has been out since July 27 with a sprained left ankle. Yuniesky Betancourt has made 15 errors, the fifth highest total by a NL shortstop.
The Brewers’ outfield defense is better, and the team actually ranks seventh in the NL in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the percentage of balls in play that are converted into outs. But on Saturday, the play of super-utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. in center proved costly.
First, Hairston failed to make a difficult catch on Lucas Duda’s pinch-hit, two-run double to left-center during the Mets’ five-run seventh. Then, in the following inning, he struggled to pick up a drive by pinch-hitter Josh Thole in the dusk, and the ball bounced off the heel of his glove for the game-tying double.
I asked Brewers fans on Twitter if Morgan would have made the latter catch, and the response was virtually unanimous: Yes. Several fans mentioned — as did Roenicke — that Gomez certainly would have caught the ball. But Gomez, an elite defender, is on the disabled list with a broken left clavicle.
Why didn’t Roenicke replace Hairston with Morgan? For one thing, Roenicke considers Hairston above-average in center. He also was concerned about second base, but at that point was reluctant to make two moves.
The way Roenicke saw it, his defense would not have improved markedly if he had stuck Morgan in center and replaced Josh Wilson with Hairston or Craig Counsell at second.
For all anyone knows, Morgan might have struggled as much as Hairston in the twilight. What’s more, Roenicke said that Gomez will be inserted automatically in such situations once he comes off the DL.
The bottom line, though, is this: The Brewers easily could lose a game because of their defense in the postseason.
HAIRSTON VS. HAIRSTON
On Friday, I joked with Hairston that I wanted to see him and his younger brother, Mets outfielder Scott Hairston, brawl the next day on FOX.
Much to my surprise, they got into it Friday night — at least verbally.
The benches emptied after a misunderstanding between Fielder and Mets reliever Tim Byrdak. The Hairston brothers amused players on both sides with their jawing back and forth — and were still texting each other before Saturday’s game.
Scott, noticing that Jerry was trying to restrain Fielder during the scrum, asked him, “What are you doing? You’re not going to hold Prince back, no matter how hard you try.”
Scott said that Jerry told him, “get back in the dugout.” Jerry laughed and said he went even further, telling Scott, “get back in the dugout or I’ll put you back in the dugout.”
Jerry, 35, is the oldest of the five Hairston children; Scott, 31, is in the middle. But Scott, 6-foot and 204 pounds, is two inches taller and 14 pounds heavier than Jerry.
WELCOME HOME, MIKE
A player can’t get much more local than Mets outfielder Mike Baxter, who grew up near Citi Field in the Whitestone section of Queens and attended one of the borough’s most athletically successful high schools, Archbishop Molloy.
Baxter, claimed on waivers from the Padres last month, is again living in Whitestone with his parents, Ray and Maureen. He used to tease his younger sister, Claire, about living at home, but Claire just graduated from Queens College and got a job.
Now she tells him, “You’re back home and you’re 26.”
The entire Brewers’ bullpen runs together about four hours before almost every game, wearing blue t-shirts that say “Brotherhood” with a picture of a skull on the front and “Carpe Diem” (seize the day) with each player’s number on the back.
LaTroy Hawkins distributed the shirts; he did something similar when he was with the Twins. The Twins’ motto then was “Throw ‘til you blow,” but Hawkins, 38, said, “You can’t use that (phrase) now when you’re older.”
Axford even organized a scavenger hunt around Miller Park for one session, Hawkins said. The relievers had to carry their cell phones and take photos of themselves at seven different checkpoints.
THE MYSTERY OF ANGEL PAGAN
Mets center fielder Angel Pagan was brilliant Saturday, robbing Jerry Hairston with a sensational running catch on his backhand, then hitting the go-ahead, two-run homer off Francisco Rodriguez to cap a 3-for-5 performance.
This was the Pagan who often was on display in 2010, and the Pagan who too often has been missing in ’11. Pagan, 30, has regressed both offensively and defensively, raising questions about whether the Mets will look to replace him.
“I’m sure he’s a little disappointed with his season, but that’s how players are — sometimes they have good years and sometimes they do not,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. “You have to look at the whole body of work. Center fielders are hard to find, especially switch-hitters who can run a little bit and have power.”
Pagan is that type, but stands to earn more than $5 million in his final year of arbitration before becoming a free agent. He says he still believes in himself, and points to his .340 batting average in 97 at-bats with runners in scoring position as proof of his contribution, even in an off-year.
THE INIMITABLE MR. PLUSH
FOX broadcaster Tim McCarver had a great line when he said the Brewers enjoyed an unfair advantage by playing with a 26-man roster, counting both Nyjer Morgan and his alter ego, Tony Plush.
Morgan says Plush is an entertainer who leaves it all out on the field but diligently practices “Plushamentals” — moving runners over, hitting sacrifice flies, playing typical ABC baseball.
Morgan’s act might get old if the Brewers weren’t winning, but he actually has given the team a lift, producing nearly an .800 OPS in nearly 300 plate appearances.
SOME PERSPECTIVE ON METS’ CAPUANO
Mets lefty Chris Capuano is fading rapidly; his ERA since the All-Star break is 6.12. Still, Capuano deserves credit simply for coming back from two Tommy John surgeries. His first operation was in 2002, his second in ’08.
As Capuano recalls, his worst moments came in the summer of ’09, when he couldn’t make the transition from bullpen work to game speed without experiencing pain and inflammation in his elbow. He questioned whether he could come back, described the experience as an emotional rollercoaster.
But everything changed in September of that year, when the Brewers assigned him to their rookie league affiliate in Helena, Mont. Capuano said the enthusiasm of the young players reminded him of why he loved playing the game.
AROUND THE HORN
• Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee, who batted only .223 before the All-Star Game but has hit .297 since, traces his turnaround to a conversation he had with hitting coach Dale Sveum in Minnesota just before the break.
McGehee had spent much of the first half trying to improve, tweaking here, tweaking there. Before he knew it, he had gotten so far away from his approach, he had lost his way. He spent the break, as he put it, “eliminating the garbage in my mind.”
He came back, went back to basics and took off.
• Brewers lefty Randy Wolf credits part of his success this season to a cut fastball he learned from new Brewers pitching coach Rick Kranitz in spring training.
Wolf previously threw a pitch that was somewhere between a cutter and a slider, but he said that it had too big a break and that he threw it only about 80 mph.
He throws his new cutter 86-87, just 2-3 mph off his fastball. The pitch has a short break, and Wolf uses it to get in on right-handed hitters.
• Mets third baseman David Wright says the stress fracture in his back forced him to adjust his pre-game routine; no longer does he just show up, stretch and take batting practice.
Wright now starts his routine about 30-45 minutes before he stretches, strengthening the muscles around the bone to help protect it. He says he actually is surprised how good his back feels. He expected to feel some “reminders” from the injury, but it hasn’t happened.
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