MILWAUKEE — The postgame music was turned up a couple notches in the Brewers clubhouse. Finally, a victory to savor after a seven-game losing streak.
Yet for all the trouble on the field the last couple weeks, the tough stretch pales in comparison to what Milwaukee went through a year ago.
From All-Star break to All-Star break, the Brewers have gone from worst to first in the NL Central.
“I don’t remember how many games we were out (last year), but I don’t think we were in the race at all,” All-Star third baseman Aramis Ramirez said after Sunday’s 11-2 victory over St. Louis that gave the Brewers a one-game lead on the Cardinals in the division.
The first-place Brewers are 53-43 at this year’s break. In 2013 they were 38-56, 19 1/2 games out and in last place.
“It was tough, last year was a tough year,” said Ramirez, the National League starter at third. “Compared to this year, we’re in first place. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
And to think, this season started with Brewers fans swooning for something other than baseball.
Hank, a cuddly white canine thought to be a bichon frise mix, walked on to the team’s spring training facility in Phoenix and turned into a breakout star and unofficial team mascot.
A Hank T-shirt day is planned for next month, and a “Bobble-Hank” doll giveaway day planned for September is already sold out. But other than the ubiquitous merchandise, Hank-mania for now has retreated to the background.
In a way, Hank did his job in the spring by bringing positive national exposure to the Brewers at a time when “candidly there wasn’t a lot of buzz about the team,” chief operating officer Rick Schlesinger said.
Hank had even relegated the return of slugger Ryan Braun to the team into a footnote. Last July after the break, Major League Baseball handed down its 50-game suspension of Braun as part of the Biogenesis doping scandal.
“Everybody loves a homeless dog. He’s a nice pup, and yeah that helped,” Schlesinger said when asked if the pup unintentionally became a welcome distraction. “I would say a lot of the factors have helped – but candidly, it’s the team playing well.”
The season-ticket base contracted following the tough 2013 season, mainly from short-term seat-holders who had signed up after the 2011 playoff run.
No dog days in Milwaukee this summer with the Brewers in the race.
Schlesinger said attendance could finish at between 2.8 million and 2.9 million at its current pace. That would be up from 2.5 million in 2013 and approaching the record of just more than 3 million in the last playoff season of 2011.
“Given what we had in 2013 and given the challenges … frankly we’re so thrilled we’re talking about those numbers realistically for the 2014 season,” Schlesinger said.
Much will depend, of course, on how the second half plays out.
The Brewers had built a 6 1/2-game lead thanks in large part to a nine-game winning streak in April. Manager Ron Roenicke never expected to run away in a tough division that included St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
But he also thought a pitching staff fortified in the offseason with the free-agent Matt Garza would help make the team immune to long losing stretches like the one the Brewers just endured. Milwaukee has lost 11 of 13 since going a season-best 19 games over .500 on June 28.
The last game though before the break was a win, a huge confidence boost headed for a struggling team.
“Now, we go into it feeling good and come out of it feeling good,” Roenicke said. “It does a lot.”
The Brewers this season have also withstood injuries to key players including Braun and Ramirez, though they haven’t been sidelined for long stretches like in 2013.
Add in All-Stars, outfielder Carlos Gomez and catcher Jonathan Lucroy, plus emerging hitters Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett, and the Brewers have potent bats up and down the lineup.
“From the leadoff to the (eighth hitter), we have guys who can damage to the opposing team,” Gomez said. “This season when you look in general at the team, we are a better team completely.”