Reds series highlights Brewers shortcomings

12 07 2008

After another devastating loss tonight against the Cincinnati Reds, it’s time to take a look at what has gone wrong. How have the Brewers lost two straight games to a team they are much better than? At home, no less.

These last two games serve as a microcosm for Milwaukee’s struggles in 2008. It’s been the big three for the Brewers.

1) Struggles at the back end of the bullpen – mainly Guillermo Mota and Eric Gagne.

2) Below-average defense.

3) Poor plate discipline and too many strikeouts.

The Bullpen

In tonight’s game against the Reds, David Riske and Brian Shouse simply needed to keep the deficit at 3-2 in the eighth inning. They needed to give the Brewers a chance to put something together against the Cincinnati’s bullpen, as Edinson Volquez dominated through seven innings.

Instead of holding the score 3-2, Riske gave up a one-out double to Jerry Hairston – who has owned the Brewers. Ned Yost then called upon Brian Shouse to strand the runner at second. Thus far in 2008, Shouse could almost guarantee results. He has struggled in the past week, however.

Those struggles continued tonight. After striking out Jay Bruce on three pitches, he gave up an RBI single to Ken Griffey Jr. Shouse has had issues keeping the ball down the past week. The deception of his sidearm delivery can only do so much. He needs to keep the ball down and away from left-handers. That has not been happening, and the team is suffering.

The score is now 4-2 after the Crew couldn’t get anything going against the unimpressive David Weathers. There is still a slim glimmer of hope in the hearts of Brewers fans, however. Maybe the offense can score two off Francisco Cordero in the ninth. Perhaps the Crew can come back against their old teammate. Again, all the bullpen needs to do is keep the deficit the same.

Enter Eric Gagne – the newly-anointed set-up man. Milwaukee’s ten million dollar man has looked extremely solid in his couple outings since coming off the DL. Adam Dunn changed that. Dunn clobbered a 3-2 fastball out of the park to increase Cincinnati’s lead to 5-2. The lead only grew after Edwin Encarnacion went deep to make it back-to-back home runs. Before the inning could end, Gagne gave up four runs on four hits. The lead was now 8-2, and all the hopes of the Brewers winning the game left when Gagne left the game for Guillermo Mota. You know there are problems if you need Mota to get you out of an inning.

Defense

Doug Melvin and the Brewers went out and signed Mike Cameron to a one-year contract to sure-up center field. He has been very impressive patrolling center and has vastly improved Milwaukee’s defense from last year. Bill Hall was forced to learn on the job last season, and Cameron is an obvious improvement with his Gold Glove-caliber defense.

Friday night, however, that exceptional defense was not on display. Cameron got an excellent jump on a ball in the left-center gap (as usual), but he lost the ball in the lights. The ball almost hit the Brewer center fielder in the head, and it resulted in a triple for Jerry Hairston. Did I mention Hairston has owned the Brewers this series? It tied the game up in the seventh.

Then, with a tie game in the eighth inning, Bill Hall fields a routine ground ball at third base. The Brewers moved him to third during the winter to improve on the defense Ryan Braun gave the Crew last season. It hasn’t improved the defense as much as Doug Melvin and the team hoped. Hall rushed his throw and spiked it in the dirt. Prince Fielder was unable to handle the low throw, and the inning continued with two on and one-out, rather than one on and two-out. It turned out to cost the Brewers the game, as Hairston scored on a wild pitch by Salomon Torres.

The sloppy defense directly led to Milwaukee’s loss to the Reds Friday night. If Hall or Cameron could have come up with only one of those plays, the worst the score could have been was a tie game going into the bottom of the ninth. What ifs are pointless, but the sloppy defense does point to a chink in the armor of the Milwaukee Brewers. Doug Melvin certainly improved the defense this off-season, but it is certainly not perfect. The defense will need to improve to catch the Chicago Cubs.

Plate Discipline

Milwaukee has a powerful offense.  No one will dispute that fact.  The team does struggle to score runs when the long ball is not present.  Manufacturing runs does not come easy for a team that strikes out a lot and does not walk very often.  As a whole, the Brewers are too over-aggressive at the plate and make soft-tossing control pitchers like Josh Fogg and Glendon Rusch look like aces.

In Friday night’s game against Fogg, the Reds’ veteran right-hander cruised along the first five innings.  He kept the free-swinging Brewers off-balance by rarely throwing a first pitch fastball and inducing a lot of pop-ups.  You know a team has a strikeout problem when Josh Fogg strikes out six in five and a third.  Fogg threw everything but the kitchen sink up there, and the aggressive Brewers hitters obliged by swinging at difficult pitches.

After Friday night’s offensive struggles against Fogg, the Reds threw out the hard-throwing Edinson Volquez to the mound.  I am not suggesting a bad outing against Volquez is indicative of offensive struggles, as almost every team that has gone against Volquez has struggled immensely.  It is the way the Brewers scuffled that indicates potential offensive problems.

Volquez struck out ten Brewers in seven innings.  He kept hitters off-balance with his exceptional change-up, and the aggressive Brewers swung over it again and again.  J.J. Hardy – who has been one of the hottest hitters in the league the past month – whiffed three times against the NL All-Star.  Strikeouts do not move runners over on the basepaths.  Strikeouts do not even give Mike Cameron a chance to score the tying run from second in Friday night’s game in the ninth inning.  Strikeouts do not allow any sacrifice flies to get runners in from third base with no outs or one out.

Right now, the Milwaukee Brewers live and die by extra base hits.  When the team is going well, they will score in bunches.  The over-reliance on extra-base hits is a recipe for offensive slumps, however.  That is what the Brewers have been unable to overcome the past two games against the Cincinnati Reds.

If the Brewers are going to catch the Chicago Cubs and stay ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals, the defense will need to improve, the bullpen will need to improve, and the offense will need to draw more walks and play more small ball.

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