Major League Baseball’s All-Star break, much like a birthday, anniversary, DVD audio commentary, or the 40th anniversary of the death of Jim Morrison (just this past July 3), is a time for reflection.
Which can be both a depressing and encouraging experience for Milwaukee Brewers fans.
You all know the good: As I write this on Friday afternoon, the Brewers, thanks to a brief two-game winning streak, are tied for first place in the NL Central with the Cardinals. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun are having monster seasons, with Fielder tied for the NL lead in RBIs, tied for second in HRs, and Braun, despite missing the last five games due to a left calf strain, fourth in the NL in batting average and in the top ten in the NL in hits, runs, and HRs.
Rickie Weeks is also having a career year (thanks in no small part to simply staying healthy), and, along with Fielder and Braun, are part of a franchise-best three starters named to the NL All-Star team.
John Axford’s 23 saves are sixth-best in the NL, allowing fans to forget about Trevor Hoffman and (not that they remembered, unless they have a deep-seeded addiction to self-flagellation) Eric Gagne.
The bad is somewhat less apparent but indicative of a team leading their division but barely over .500: The Brewers have been alarmingly inconsistent, particularly in its starting rotation and particularly over the past month. Yovani Gallardo hasn’t been able to put two quality starts together since his six-game winning streak ended on June 4. Three of Zack Greinke’s last four starts have been awful as his ERA has ballooned to 5.66. Randy Wolf is coming off two straight poor starts.
Since a big sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in mid-June, the Brewers are a lousy 9-14. Milwaukee needs to turn that around (and perhaps, with wins in their last two games, are starting to do just that), not only if they want to stay in the hunt for their division — with four teams within three games of the lead, the NL Central has the hottest division race going in baseball — but almost as importantly, if they want Wisconsin sports fans to continue to care.
Let’s be clear: The NBA lockout could drag on for years (as it might), and few if any sports fans in Wisconsin would miss the Milwaukee Bucks. (Even though many of us are itching to see Jon Leuer in hunter green.)
But of more concern to the Brewers should be the NFL lockout, which, if we’re to believe the most optimistic of the current reports, could end as soon as Tuesday, July 12. (I use the word “soon” begrudgingly since this lockout is already the longest work stoppage in NFL history.)
Make no mistake about it: When the NFL lockout ends, coverage of the Milwaukee Brewers in Wisconsin will be thoroughly buried under coverage of the Packers and the NFL. Fans hungry for football news not taking place in a courtroom will be immediately served course upon course of stories about free agency, draft signings, roster cuts, and perhaps even — gulp — Brett Favre sightings. (Rachel Nichols, get to Hattiesburg immediately!)
Think of the flood of news stories that Wisconsin football fans will be following: Who will sign undrafted free agents John Clay and Scott Tolzien? Can the Packers re-sign Cullen Jenkins? What about James Jones? How will Ryan Grant comeback from his ankle injury? How does Jermichael Finley look? How much better will the Detroit Lions be this season? Can Aaron Rodgers get any better? Can the Packers repeat?
On top of that, interest is already intensifying for the Wisconsin Badgers football team and their 2011 season, in no small part due to the recent commitment of former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson, the 2011 debut of Nebraska in the Big Ten, this year’s debut of the Big Ten’s new “Legends” and “Leaders” divisions, and ample curiosity to see if the Badgers can make another Rose Bowl run.
It’s not hard to see the weeks of NFL training camp/free agency/preseason news going full force into the start of the Badgers season, which starts early this year with a primetime home game against UNLV on September 1. Then it’s a mere seven days until the Packers start their defense of their Super Bowl championship at home against New Orleans on September 8.
In short, the Brewers’ window as the only game in town to be capturing the hearts and minds of Wisconsin sports fans could be closing fast.
Making matters worse for Milwaukee is their schedule. Following Tuesday’s All-Star Game, Milwaukee goes on a potentially back-breaking, soul-crushing 11-game road trip. It’s not that the Brewers are playing such unbeatable teams (although two of the three clubs they will face, Arizona and San Francisco, do have superior records), it’s that they have been simply awful on the road, with a record of 16-29 away from Miller Park.
The worst-case scenario for Milwaukee is this: The Brewers split their current home series against the Reds. They then go 4-7 on that aforementioned road trip (roughly the same road winning percentage they’ve attained during the first half of the season), dropping their record by July 26 to 52-51. Such a drop could put them in fourth place in the tight NL Central.
Now even though the Brewers would by no means be out of it with a 52-51 record in late July, should the NFL lockout have ended by that time, it’s not hard to imagine Wisconsin sports fans easily turning the page from a fourth-place baseball team to their Super Bowl champion Packers and Big Ten champion Badgers.
For all of us sports multi-taskers who actually like to follow more than one sport, even at the same time, I can only say this: Go Brewers. This is a surprisingly crucial time of your season.
And I need as many distractions as possible to stop me from thinking about my next birthday.