Times are good in the state of Wisconsin right now, with the hot Brewers, and big years expected for the Packers and Badgers. The Notebook takes a look…
THE BREWERS BLAST IT OPEN
At the All-Star break the NL Central promised us a fabulous four-team race in the season’s second half. Well, it didn’t last long. Cincinnati faded first. Pittsburgh went belly-up immediately after the trade deadline. But at least Milwaukee and St. Louis would give us a sizzling September, right? Wrong. The Brewers have won 22 of the last 25 and blown this race wide open, leading the Cards by 8.5 games as play opens Monday. What was once the hottest race is now the biggest runaway, as Milwaukee holds the biggest margin of any division leader. How did they do it?
The Brewers’ stars have met the moment. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder have led the way with explosive second halves. Fielder is slugging .527 with six home runs since the break. Braun, despite being slowed by a hamstring problem has slugged .645 and gone deep eight times. And that power hasn’t come at the expense of average and plate discipline. Both have on-base percentages at or over .400, and both are hitting well over. 300.
Power isn’t just coming from the muscle in the middle. It seems everyone in the Milwaukee lineup is powering up. Corey Hart has hit eight home runs and even shortstop Yuneisky Betancourt has gotten in the act with five bombs. Third baseman Casey McGehee has recovered from a hideous first half and has a respectable .333 on-base percentage in the second half and .455 slugging, although his home runs were frontloaded into a single game against the Cardinals.
But if you’re going to have a big game, St. Louis is the one to do it against. Milwaukee took four of six from their rivals in a recent home-and-home sequence. They’ll have to go head-to-head a couple more times. The Cards come north a week from Tuesday for a three-game set and then almost immediately after that, the teams begin their final three-game set of the season on Labor Day in St. Loo.
If there’s reason for caution in Milwaukee it’s just the certainty that they’ll slow down off this torrid pace. The question becomes whether it turns into a full-scale September meltdown. Here too, though, Milwaukee has the pitching to prevent a sustained slump. Yovani Gallardo is pitching well right now, with a 2.94 ERA in the second half, including seven strong innings in New York yesterday. Randy Wolf and Shawn Marcum have been steady rocks in the middle. But the biggest difference right now is that Zack Greinke, after a first half where he was hurt or inconsistent, is locked in and pitching like the former Cy Young winner he is. In seven 2nd-half starts he’s 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA. That’s the stopper the Brewers need to avoid a slump and just as important, it’s the kind of ace they need to match up in the postseason.
And one more thing—Milwaukee’s done this without Rickie Weeks, the best second baseman in the National League and perhaps all of baseball, who’s rehabbing an ankle injury. He’s projected to return for September and for the playoffs, giving the Brewers the chance to join the Packers as a championship team in Wisconsin.
GREEN BAY PACKERS PREVIEW
Most teams that come off a Super Bowl run have a lurking fear in the background—will they be as healthy as they were during that magic ride to a championship. That’s not exactly a problem in Green Bay. Everything that happened to the Packers throughout the regular season virtually screamed the fact that it wasn’t their year. They were decimated by injuries at every position, lost close games at Chicago and Detroit and ended up needing the Lions to beat Tampa Bay on the road in December just to create a path to get into the playoffs. Once that path was open though, and the lineup was reasonably healthy, Green Bay took off. They won two must-win games to close the regular season against the Giants and Bears and then rolled through the postseason. What can happen if things actually go their way this season?
A lot of good things should be expected in Green Bay, because this team is loaded. They have playmakers that can turn a game on a dime on both sides of the ball. There’s Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and Clay Matthews at outside linebacker, both capable of winning an MVP award. In a world where most defenses would kill for just one lockdown corner, the Packers have two, in Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. Should the 36-year old Woodson show his age, then nickel back Sam Shields looks ready to step into the lineup. A.J. Hawk is steady at inside linebacker, and B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett do a good job up front in tying up blockers and enabling Hawk to make plays and Matthews to wreak havoc.
If there is a chink in Green Bay’s armor, it’s some revamping of the offensive line. Right tackle Steve Tauscher is out and replaced by second-year man Bryan Bulaga. There’s some uncertainty at left guard and Chad Clifton at left tackle is 35. The positives are that even with pass protection problems, Rodgers gets rid of the ball quickly and with four solid receivers he’s very good at always picking the right one to get the ball too in a pinch.
It was the running game that made the difference between Green Bay being a gutty playoff team and turning into a Super Bowl champion. After a season of struggling to replace injured Ryan Grant, the team somehow found James Starks in the playoffs and he delivered some clutch performances, notably against Philadelphia when his play was the difference between advancing and going home in the first round. Starks and a healthy Grant now look to share carries.
Green Bay is set to enter a golden age. Whether they repeat or not this year, I would concur with an opinion by ESPN’s John Clayton that the franchise is positioned to win 2-3 more Super Bowls during this time when Rodgers and Matthews are in their primes. As for this year, they are certainly the team to beat in the NFC again.
WISCONSIN FACES GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Since emerging as a player on the college football scene in 1993, Wisconsin developed a clear pattern. They could step up with a big year when nothing was expected, but if they returned 16 starters and were ranked in the Top 10, forget it. Perhaps no program in the country was more counter-intuitive than UW’s. That changed last year. Coming off a 9-3 year with experience at every position, the Badgers were seen as a contender for the Big Ten title, and they delivered. With 11 wins, a share of the conference title and only a narrow Rose Bowl loss to unbeaten TCU standing between them and the Top 5, Wisconsin met expectations. Now they have to do it again.
Whether Wisconsin is the clear favorite in the Big Ten, or even in the Leaders Division, is subject to debate. But the offseason went as well as could possibly be expected. They landed Russell Wilson, the talented transfer quarterback from N.C. State who is eligible to play right away. And chief division rival Ohio State, the presumptive favorite, saw its program descend into a summer of turmoil.
The Badgers lose elite talent in the trenches, in Outland Trophy winner Gabe Carimi and defensive end J.J. Watt, but the cupboard isn’t bare. The other three defensive line starters all return, and three more starters are back on the offensive line. Furthermore, the Wisconsin program has developed an offensive line tradition that simply reloads. There should be plenty of holes for an extremely deep and explosive running back cast, with James White, Montee Ball and Zack Brown all outstanding playmakers.
Wilson’s adjustment to the Wisconsin offense is going to tell the story. He could pile up yardage and touchdowns at N.C. State, but also interceptions. Yet he had enormous pressure on him with the Wolfpack, with the burden of moving the ball exclusively on him and was required to take chances. If he can settle into a system that lets the running backs carry the load and looks for him to simply loosen up defense, the Badgers will again meet expectations. If he succumbs to interceptions, they’ll still be a decent team, but more of the 8-win variety rather than the double digits that are expected in Madison this year.
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