Brewers Get The Broom Out

By Murray Chass

September 16, 2008

In the end, Ned Yost was swept out of the manager’s office in Milwaukee because his team spent the first half of this month being swept by the Mets and the Phillies.

Those two series were critical for the Brewers because they were scrambling to hold onto their wild-card lead, and either the Phillies or the Mets figured to be a primary contender for the playoff spot.

With their lead shrinking, the Brewers reminded their fans and their executives of their collapse last year. Oh, reminds you of the Mets, does it?

The Brewers looked safe this year. They snatched the wild-card lead from St. Louis July 21, built a lead as large as 5½ games and held the top spot alone until the Phillies tied them Sunday.

When this month began, the Brewers led the Phillies by 5½. The Mets led the Phillies by a game in the National League East. Two weeks later the Phillies remained a game behind the Mets but were tied with the Brewers.

Last year the Brewers were squarely in the battle for the Central title. They moved into first place April 21 and stayed there, except for two days, until Aug. 17. They worked their way back to the top for several days in September, but they had exhausted their effort and the Cubs won the division title.

The Brewers’ failure was not as striking as the collapse of the Mets, who squandered a seven-game lead with 17 games to play. On the day the Mets increased their lead to seven over the Phillies, Sept. 12, the Brewers were tied for first with the Cubs.

The Mets and the Brewers seem intent on reprising their act this season. The Mets have led the East for a month, except for one day, but their play in recent days has resembled their self-destructive path of last year.

The highlight of the Mets’ play has been a sweep of a three-game series in Milwaukee at the beginning of the month. That was only one of the lowlights for the Brewers, who most recently lost four games to the Phillies.

Not that any time is a good time to be swept in a series, but the Brewers have picked really wrong times. On the last four days of July, the Brewers had a four-game series with the Cubs, who at the start of the series led them by only one game. The Brewers lost all four games and haven’t been that close to first since.

How can a team with CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets in its starting rotation suffer series sweeps regularly?

Of the three major sweeps, Sabathia pitched in only one. He started the first game of the Cubs series, gave up four runs (three earned) and was not the losing pitcher in the 6-4 loss, the only one of Sabathia’s 13 starts the Brewers have lost.

Sheets lost the second game, 7-1, and also lost the first game of the series with the Phillies. He started the first game of the series with the Mets but was not the losing pitcher. Nor was he the winning pitcher because the Brewers won.

Not that the Brewers have only been swept in series. They have staged 10 sweeps of their own, tying them with the Cubs, the White Sox and the Red Sox for most sweeps of series of three games or more, according to Elias Sports Bureau. But seven of the Brewers sweeps have come against teams with losing records.

However the Brewers have done with series sweeps, they were swept in the ones that counted the most, and the results cost Yost his job. It’s not clear if the decision was made by the general manager, Doug Melvin, or was ordered by the owner, Mark Attanasio.

But it is a rare move, most likely unprecedented, for this time of the season. In 1973 the Pirates fired Bill Virdon on Sept. 6 with 26 games left and replaced him with Danny Murtaugh, who was to the Pirates what Billy Martin would become shortly afterward to George Steinbrenner and the Yankees.

The Pirates’ dismissal of Virdon, in fact, led to Martin’s on-and-off relationship with Steinbrenner. The Yankees hired Virdon to manage for the 1974 season, and they fired him 104 games into the next season. Martin replaced him and, like a bad penny, kept coming back.

But what did the Pirates’ dismissal of Virdon do for them in 1973? Under Virdon, the Pirates had a 67-69 record. With Murtaugh in the dugout they won 13 and lost 13.

Lest anyone wonder why the Pirates thought a change in managers could help them win the division title, that was the year the Mets finished first with an 82-79 record. When the Pirates made their move, they were two and a half games ahead of the Mets and three games behind first-place St. Louis.

Excuse the reference here to hockey, but Lou Lamoriello, the New Jersey Devils general manager, fired his coach late in the 2006-2007 season and took over himself. He did it with only three games left and a playoff spot already clinched. Lamoriello obviously thought the team would have a better chance to win the Stanley Cup with him coaching than Claude Julien.

The Devils, however, lost in the second round.

What the Brewers do the rest of the season will be closely watched. If they reach the playoffs behind Dale Sveum, Yost’s replacement, Melvin will be credited with making a shrewd move. If they don’t make it, they’ll never know what might have been.

Besides overseeing a collapsing team for the second successive season, Yost raised eyebrows with his vehement reaction to an official scoring call in Sabathia’s near no-hitter at Pittsburgh Aug. 31. Yost was far more outspoken than Sabathia, who really wasn’t outspoken at all, about the call of a hit rather than an error.

It was bizarre that a manager of a team in a playoff race would focus his team’s attention on an official scorer’s call, especially after his team won the game

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