NLCS: Milwaukee Brewers infuse thrill in MLB Playoffs

A team that began as Pilots and was bought and brought to Milwaukee by a Bud has suddenly, miraculously, become the undying spirit of these baseball playoffs.

No, the manuscript wasn’t submitted with a closing act this fun. Baseball in Milwaukee wasn’t ever supposed to be marked by jubilation, encapsulated by flair.

When the Brewers played their first game in this midwestern football town in 1970, they had to patch new logos on old uniforms because Opening Day was calling and it didn’t leave enough time to order new ones. In a city built on the blue-collar identity of Lombardi and Starr, the people of Milwaukee have gone crazy over Prince and Plush.

With a 9-6 win against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS, the Milwaukee Brewers continue to power their way deeper into October, closer to the franchise’s first World Series since 1982.

The 2011 MLB playoffs have easily been one of the best of the last decade – maybe longer – and the reality that the games keep getting better while the money-guzzling behemoths of the sport watch their summer skits fade to black has not been lost on a sport that desperately needs more fun infused in its game.

The Boston Red Sox never made it to the playoffs, instead croaking on Day 162 while the Tampa Bay Rays tight-roped their way into baseball’s fall tournament. The New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies did make it into October, but they were eliminated by the Detroit Tigers and the Cardinals, respectively. The Brewers beat a forgotten Arizona Diamondbacks club, and the Rays were sent to the first tee by the Texas Rangers.

That’s our Final Four – Brewers, Cardinals, Rangers, Tigers – and who could make a case that these playoffs would be any more entertaining if the championship series had different clubs? You couldn’t.

The Rangers have a chance to officially rewrite the baseball culture in Arlington by appearing in consecutive World Series, buoyed by a weathered president in Nolan Ryan and a warm manager in Ron Washington. They ranked third in baseball in runs scored and have a bullpen that fights late-inning fires with relentless vessels of gas.

The Tigers have gotten here by the will of their chain-smoking manager and the christened limb of the American League’s best pitcher. They beat you with a Miguel, a Papa Grande and four days of prayer until Justin Verlander can pitch again.

The Cardinals pulled a Rays, backing into the postseason mostly by their 18-8 September and partly by the suffocation of the Atlanta Braves. They put their fate in the hands of their King (Albert), and nine innings of mastery and magic from Chris Carpenter doesn’t hurt, either.

All great stories, but none of them are quite as good as the Brewers.

Milwaukee has become this sudden force of nature, more vagabond than household name, but only because the Brewers spend the season sitting quietly in their northern nook of the country, in a state ruled by Badgers and Packers and known for dairy products.

They play in a division ruled by the Cubs and Cardinals, in a league that has the powerhouse Phillies, moribund Mets and other more popular clubs. But then the stage shrinks in October, there are fewer games to watch, and more eyes pay attention to Miller Park. And damn, the people think, that’s a good club.

When you watch the Brewers, it’s not hard to make a case for them being the best team still alive. Few other teams have a one-two pitching punch like Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo. No other teams have a duo as good as Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder (Pujols and Matt Holliday are quite good, but give me the Brew Two). And while Texas has the best and deepest pen, Milwaukee does just fine with John Axford at the back end of its.

But the brilliance of the Brewers lies in the rope that manager Ron Roenicke has allowed them. Roenicke runs a club whose attitude flies perpendicular with the one you would expect a Milwaukee team to portray.

Midwestern morals? Small town values? Maybe somewhere buried in the game pants of Fielder, but not on the surface. The surface is littered with bravado and machismo and “Plusdamentals.” Under Nyjer Morgan, the Brew Crew has become the F-U Crew (No, really. Check the TBS feed on YouTube). There’s nothing soft or subtle or solemn about ‘em. They are staged, they are choreographed, they are too much at times, yes, but they do not apologize. They are also breathing life into a sport that has grown accustomed to being forgotten once fall training camps open up.

The Brewers have captured the pulse of Milwaukee at a time when the Green Bay Packers are defending champions and the local college football team has a Heisman-caliber quarterback and a BCS caliber team. The narrative is so implausible it’s hysterical.

Three more wins against the Cardinals and the Brewers will be playing for a ring. Fielder is headed off to free agency this winter, which means he’s likely headed off to another team, but nobody wants to talk about that right now. Right now, Fielder is getting plunked by pitches and responding by disintegrating baseballs in subsequent at-bats. He touches home plate, stretches his arms out wide to signify the team’s “beast mode” motto, points into the shaking stands, goes through his 1-2 punch routine with Braun, and hops down the dugout steps, into a swarm of blue jerseys waiting to beat his back with slaps of joy.

Unlike the pressure-cooker towns in the northeast, October baseball was never supposed to mean everything in Milwaukee.

Yet suddenly, miraculously, it does.

Teddy Mitrosilis is an editor for ESPN Insider. You can follow him on Twitter and reach him at tm4000@yahoo.com.

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