Brewers in midst of what could be a magical run
The Philadelphia Phillies teased for a while down the stretch, but they never became that team. No worries, though. If you're into baseball comebacks for the ages, the Milwaukee Brewers are flirting with evolving into the real thing.
All the Brewers must do to complete the miracle is to keep discovering ways to win no matter what, with everything from Ryan Braun's sizzling bat to the suddenly potent arms of their starting pitchers to the historically strong will of the Cheeseheads.
Remember? Just slightly more than a month ago, the Brewers were reeking when they weren't reeling.
They had yet to recover from a season of injuries to two first basemen, two shortstops, a catcher and a No. 5 starting pitcher. They were just weeks removed from trading ace pitcher Zack Greinke to the Angels for three prospects. They had the season-long slump of second baseman Rickie Weeks. They were switching back and forth between closers. Their defense was a mess.
No wonder the Brewers were a season-high 13 games behind the second National League Wild Card spot on Aug. 6.
Now the Brewers are 1 1/2 games back -- and surging.
Their lineup is healthier than ever this season. Yovani Gallardo (1.83 ERA with 18 strikeouts in his past 19 2/3 innings) is making folks in Milwaukee say, "Greinke, who?" Weeks is hitting like his All-Star self again. They've gone from an ineffective John Axford at closer to ineffective Francisco Rodriguez to highly effective Axford. Mostly, the Brewers are catching and throwing with the best of folks these days.
"We're doing everything right, right now," Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez said on Thursday after his team won for a fifth consecutive time with a 9-7 victory in Pittsburgh. It also was the Brewers' 23rd victory in their last 29 games.
Added Ramirez, "When we pitch, we usually take care of business. Today, we didn't pitch, and we scored a lot of runs. That's how good teams win ballgames -- you've got to pick up each other. The pitching wasn't there, and we came back and won it. The first two nights, they scored one run in two games. We're doing everything right."
Just like all comeback teams.
As for that team, it's any team resembling the one that gets lost in the pixie dust of Bobby Thomson, Bucky Dent and the rest.
That team was my team -- the 1973 Cincinnati Reds, which was the early version of the Big Red Machine. By the start of summer, it had more than a few cogs sputtering. That's because it had nothing close to an engine or a transmission after nearly three months of the season.
Then came eight-plus innings of listlessness during what appeared to be a meaningless game at old Riverfront Stadium.
The date was July 1, 1973. Not only did the Reds trail the same Los Angeles Dodgers bunch they were facing that day by 11 games in the division, but the Reds were threatening to sink further in the standings with a 3-1 deficit in the bottom of the ninth of Game 1 of a doubleheader.
There were two outs, and nobody named Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan or Tony Perez was strolling to the plate. The batter was a pudgy reserve catcher named Hal King, and he was pinch-hitting, mostly because there was nobody else.
"Oh, we all remember that," Perez said on Friday, chuckling over the phone from his home in Miami, where he works as a special assistant to the president of the Marlins.
Thirty-eight years ago, Perez was on his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Such also was the case for Bench, Morgan and manager Sparky Anderson, while Rose was collecting enough hits to set the foundation for becoming the all-time leader in that category.
King? Well, he was irrelevant.
That was until he became significant in Reds history with a walk-off, three-run homer that day against the Dodgers.
"It was the biggest home run that anybody hit for us all season, because when that thing went out, it just told us, 'Hey, let's go get them. We can come back, and we can win this thing,'" said Perez of his Reds, who won 60 of their final 86 games.
The Reds won the division, and they did so by 3 ½ games over the Dodgers.
Still, outside of members and historians of the Big Red Machine -- and maybe those of the Dodgers -- nobody remembers that 1973 comeback by the Reds. It didn't help that those Reds finished with more victories than anybody in baseball (99), and then stumbled during the NL Championship Series against a New York Mets team that set a record at the time for winning its division with the worst record ever at 82-79.
In contrast, the St. Louis Cardinals spent last season surging from 10 1/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves in late August to the NL Wild Card berth. After that, the Cardinals ignored their underdog status each time to win the NL Division Series over the Phillies, the NLCS over the Brewers and the World Series over the Texas Rangers.
Decades before the Cardinals' magic, there was that of the 1951 season, when Thomson helped the New York Giants shock the Brooklyn Dodgers with his pennant-winning homer after the Giants faced a 13 ½-game deficit in mid-August.
There wasn't division play back then. There was such a thing in 1969, when the New York Mets overcame a 9 ½-game deficit to the Chicago Cubs in mid-August to win the division, the pennant and the World Series.
The 1978 New York Yankees can relate to those Miracle Mets, because they also won it all after a mad dash. In mid-July of that year, they trailed the Boston Red Sox by 14 games, but eventually got Dent's improbable homer at Fenway Park during a one-game playoff for the division title to reach the playoffs.
"That was big. That was really big," Perez said. "I was watching that one on television when Bucky Dent hit that home run, and that was my favorite of all of the comebacks."
You know, except for the Hal King one.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.