Individual accolades adding up
Brewers hope All-Star Game is step towards banner season
NEW YORK -- All-Star honors continue to be heaped upon individual Milwaukee Brewers. The players involved appreciate the accolades, but they'd like to move towards collective success next.
On Monday, National League All-Star manager Clint Hurdle named Ben Sheets as the NL's starting pitcher for the 2008 Midsummer Classic. That came after Ryan Braun was elected as an All-Star starter by the fans in his first full season in the Majors and his first season in the outfield, and outfielder Corey Hart won the NL's Final Vote.
All of this, along with last season's All-Star selections of first baseman Prince Fielder and shortstop J.J. Hardy, clearly indicates a team that is gaining recognition. The Brewers are gaining on the field as well, but their 52-43 record at the break, while it was the third-best record in the NL, also placed them third in the increasingly difficult NL Central.
Sheets becomes the first pitcher in franchise history to start an All-Star Game, and it is difficult to argue with the selection. He is 10-3 with a 2.85 ERA. His teammates have been touting him for this honor in recent days, and now they're happy to see him get it.
"We're thrilled for Ben," Braun said. "He's a great guy, a great teammate, and a really easy guy to be happy for. And he's certainly well-deserving."
Anybody who wants to diminish Sheets' career invariably points to the fact that he has never won more than 12 games in a single season. But that misses the point. For years, he was a very good pitcher on a series of inadequate clubs. In 2004, for instance, he walked 32 while striking out 264, incredible numbers, but his record was 12-14. Now he's on a team good enough to get some mileage out of his considerable ability.
"People keep wanting to judge us by our [win-loss] records as starting pitchers, and I've had some good years where I didn't feel like the wins and losses matched up," Sheets said on Monday. "Everybody wants to say that this is the best I've ever pitched in my career, because of the wins and losses, but to me, I've had plenty of stretches like this in my career, but I'd go 3-7 over 10 games. I attribute it to the team I play on. My team's very good now. I can go out there and have a bad day and still get a big win.
"That makes this game so much more fun for me, because we've got the ability to win on a daily basis. This [starting in the All-Star Game] is very special. There's nothing more special than playing in October, which I'd like to experience, but this is pretty special for a halfway present."
Hurdle said he was impressed by Sheets' start against the Rockies last Friday, in which the right-hander struck out 11 in five innings. Sheets didn't like the start because he departed after the sixth and took the loss.
"That was all right," Sheets said of the 11 strikeouts, "but I'd like to pitch deeper into games. I ain't a fan of watching most of the game from the bench. I want to find a way to get back to where I was. I feel like my stuff is coming along, but I want to find a way to get back deep into those games."
Hart has described the Brewers as "more a brotherhood than a team," and that, for him, explains the possibility of success.
"There are plenty of teams out there, but not necessarily close teams," Hart said. "A lot of times there are guys playing for themselves, they're playing for the money. Our team, I said a brotherhood, but it's also like a fraternity, we're so close, we hang out together, we bond, we root for each other. It's the way it should be when you're on a team. We're a team on the move. Milwaukee's definitely a team on the rise."
Hart has probably been overshadowed by more publicized teammates such as Braun and Fielder. But quietly or not, he is one of this team's most dependable players, superior defensively, perhaps the team's best baserunner, and a consistent run producer. So his election in the Final Vote balloting was richly merited.
"Our fans have been incredible," Hart said. "When you feel like you've produced enough to get noticed, it makes it that much more special when you are noticed. I feel like I am underrated, but with the guys I play with, it's easy to be underrated. That's fine by me. When you have such a quality team, it's easy to get overlooked."
The Brewers have been playing well over the past six weeks, and their acquisition of starter CC Sabathia further elevates their chances and their public profile. Braun points to a three-game sweep in Boston by the Red Sox as the turning point in this season.
"I think, sometimes, you have to experience failure to really appreciate success," Braun said. "I think our series in Boston, we pretty much got embarrassed, we didn't play well there. That opened our eyes to the importance of taking our concentration to another level, our mental preparation to another level.
"Sometimes, you take things for granted. We know that we're talented, we know that we were in the race last year, and I think we took that for granted a little early on. We changed our mindset and everybody became that much more committed to winning. For us, I think we're too talented to accept mediocrity."
It is beyond dispute now that the 2008 Brewers are certainly talented enough on an individual basis, to get major All-Star recognition all the way across the board. They have an outfield starter, a Final Vote winner, and the epitome of individual All-Star recognition, a pitcher starting in the All-Star Game. Their hope is that all of this helps to add up to a group celebration, the franchise's first postseason in 26 years.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.