Here's a riddle that fans of a stumbling lakefront baseball team not named the Cubs should commit to memory, just in case of a collapse:
If you take "I'll walk" out of "Milwaukee" what's left?
Coincidence? Maybe not. Brewers fans have been hearing "me" a lot lately -- from two of their biggest stars, no less -- and the timing stinks. Their ballclub can't score runs, dropping six of the last eight. The St. Louis Cardinals, the only team with a shot to short-circuit Milwaukee's first division title in nearly three decades, have won six of their last eight. A 10-1/2 game lead was down to 5 1/2 by Thursday's day off, which should have been a welcome opportunity for the Brewers to catch their breath.
In an TBS interview set to air this weekend, Prince Fielder reminded anyone who needed reminding this was "probably" his last season with the Brewers. And that one of the things he was going miss most was Ryan Braun, his slugging partner in the lineup and possible rival for the league's Most Valuable Player award.
"It's been great. Unfortunately, this is probably the last year of the one-two punch," Fielder said, adding a moment later, "Hopefully, we can go out with a blast."
A blast of what, though, remains to be seen. Fielder's near-certain departure was the ballclub's worst-kept secret dating all the way back to spring training. To his credit, Fielder kept it from becoming a sore spot for most of Milwaukee's roller-coaster season. Exactly why he chose this moment to rip the Band-Aid off is anyone's guess, unless agent Scott Boras is whispering in his ear. Either way, fans who thought the 2008 postseason run was painful might want to keep their eyes covered.
In addition to holding off the Cardinals for the NL Central's top spot, the Brewers need a better record than the Diamondbacks to lock up the league's No. 2 seed. Otherwise, instead of possibly opening the postseason with the Braves at home, they'll be on the road against the Phillies, whom No. 4 Milwaukee starter Randy Wolf recently tabbed as the best pitching rotation "one through five" in the history of baseball. Oh, and there's this: Milwaukee has lost the season series to all three likely opponents.
After a Wednesday night loss to the Rockies, Fielder confirmed he had said "it is probably the last year," then reminded reporters gathered around his locker that they started saying this as early as the end of last season. Rising to the bait, one asked Fielder whether anything happened "that makes 'probably' more 'probably' than before." Got that?
"No, it's the same," Fielder answered coolly. "They asked me a question."
Newly arrived teammate, one-time closer and longtime match-head Francisco Rodriguez likewise didn't need much prompting. You'd think the guy would be happy enough just playing for a contender after jumping ship from the sinking Mets in July. And for a while, K-Rod was, or at least happy enough to keep his feelings to himself about being demoted to a setup role. He lost his closing job to incumbent John Axford in the move, but one look at Axford's numbers -- 39 straight saves -- makes that decision a no-brainer. Say the same for Rodriguez's whining about not getting a chance to be the closer, even though there's a only a dozen regular-season games left.
"I'm not happy. That's the bottom line for me. They told me one thing. They haven't done it. And I stand by what I said. I'm not lying. I'm not creating something out of nowhere," Rodriguez said. "I'm just saying the facts."
Conveniently, though, Rodriguez left one important fact out. The Brewers already worked out a way to amend a $500,000 payout in his contract that depended on how many games he finished -- even though he's another almost-certain departure at the end of this season. Now that looks like hush money poorly spent, especially to a club that only recently, and with plenty of trepidation, eased its tight-fisted grip on the payroll.
From a distance, the Brewers don't have the look or the sound of a $85 million-plus ballclub, let alone one poised to make a serious run at the postseason. But general manager Doug Melvin said the view is different on the inside. He recounted a trip through the clubhouse after the Brewers' latest loss.
"I don't think it's going to affect the ball club. When you're winning like we have been, when you're playing like we have been, there's always a lot of interviews. ... If they get asked, players today sometime want to say what their feelings are at a certain point. Any free agent player at this time probably does think there's a chance of them maybe not coming back."
Melvin made the remarks Thursday during his weekly segment on the team's flagship radio station. Hopefully, he told the players the same thing, since chances are good that he knows exactly who's coming back and who's not. What Melvin better hope is that between now and however long this season continues, all of them remember what it takes to win: