Can Brewers take another step to reach World Series? The players think so.
One more victory.
When the Milwaukee Brewers gathered a few weeks ago for their annual “On Deck” fan festival at the downtown Wisconsin Center, that was the talk among the players. After bowing out in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers last fall, the motivation is there to take it one step further.
“We were close,” said Christian Yelich, who carried the club down the stretch to run away with the National League most valuable player award. “We got really close to what we wanted to accomplish as a team.
“We have had some time to sit back and reflect on the season and those feelings. You want those feelings again. You want to see the energy in the stadium, especially the way it felt down the stretch and in the playoffs. You want to get back to that. I think that hunger and that drive should be there for everybody.
“It’s not fun sitting there after a Game 7 loss after being so close. I think it will really drive us as a team.”
If that sounds as if the Brewers have a little extra motivation as they gather this week in Phoenix for the start of spring training, they do. With most of the team returning intact, there is every reason to expect a winning product on the field. A huge finishing piece was added in mid-January when free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal signed a $18.5 million deal with an option for 2020.
Beyond that addition, the Brewers have many key players in the prime of their careers, with years of control for the club. In other words, they should be competitive for the postseason for at least a few years, barring unforeseen circumstances.
“This is the window we’re in right now,” third baseman Travis Shaw said. “We have a nice little window right here where everyone is under control and we can go for it here the
next couple of years. That’s what everyone is shooting for.
“You were so close; one game away. At the same time, we accomplished a lot of things last year, and with everyone we have coming back, there is no reason to think we can’t get back there and hopefully get over that hump this time.
“Obviously, we have to get there first. It’s a long season before that but I think everyone has the same goal this year and that’s to get one game further than we did last year and get to the World Series. Then, anything can happen.”
First things, first. To win the NL Central last year, the Brewers had to win their final eight regular-season games, including a Game No. 163 showdown with the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. And, by all accounts, the division should be even stronger this year.
The Cubs are still loaded with talent. The St. Louis Cardinals, unhappy with three straight seasons of missing the postseason, added slugger Paul Goldschmidt and reliever Andrew Miller. The Pittsburgh Pirates still have some of the best pitching in the division. And even the Cincinnati Reds are trying now after an off-season of changes, including a new manager, coaches and player acquisitions such as Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood.
“The Central is going to be really good,” Shaw said. “There is no slouching in the division anymore. There is nobody you are going to roll into a three-game set and expect to sweep. We are going to beat up on each other, and hopefully we come out on top.”
When the Brewers embarked on their large-scale rebuilding process in 2015, there was no way to know they’d jump back in the thick of things so soon. After the team fell one game short of the NL’s second wild-card berth in 2017, principal owner Mark Attanasio and general manager David Stearns decided to go all-in by acquiring outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Yelich on the same day.
So, the Brewers are in full-on contending mode, despite continued cries from the outside baseball world to add a pitching ace. The fact is they like the group they have and think it’s enough to get back to October baseball in 2019.
“There’s no reason to think we can’t get further,” Shaw said. “The front office realizes it. They’ve made the acquisitions the last two years to make us better, to put us in the position to be the best team in the National League.
“We were one game short of that last year. We had the most wins in the regular season (96), so they are pushing all the right buttons. We’ve just got to continue to play well and stay healthy. It’s a long season but I think we are in a good spot.”
It has been obvious for some time that the expectation level of Brewers fans is sky high. The “On Deck” event sold out in advance for the first time. Ticket sales for 2019 are booming. The start of spring training is a subject of much excitement, and not just because it provides distractions from the Wisconsin winter, complete with polar vortex.
But expectations within the clubhouse are similarly high. Optimism is always at its peak as teams report to spring training, well-founded or not, but the Brewers legitimately are juiced about what could happen if things break their way.
“We understand what we are capable of,” Yelich said. “It’s a long season; things have to go right health-wise and performance-wise. We’ve got a great group here. We’ve got some experience. Some guys got their beaks wet in big situations.
“We’ve just got to build on it. We can’t take any steps back. We’ve got to grow as individual players and as a team. I think we are all going to do that.
“Last year is last year. It’s all about this upcoming year, 2019. That drives you. That is what keeps you working hard. We have to be focused. Nothing is guaranteed. You have to earn everything.”
Travis Shaw is one of several Milwaukee Brewers in the prime of their careers. The Brewers were one game away from the World Series last season, and the majority of the 2018 roster returns this year.
Slugger Paul Goldschmidt signed with St. Louis in the offseason, making the NL Central Division even more challenging.