Brewers hang in despite power shortage, pitching woes

All the weird happenings in the American League East this year are a continual reminder that the Milwaukee Brewers are not quite the same team that won both its division title and the pennant in 1982.

This is a franchise that has shifted its emphasis away from the big inning, as exemplified by a league-leading 216 home runs last season, and has come to depend much more on its speed, defense, and contact hitters to survive.

''Even though our personnel is basically the same, sure we're different,'' admitted Milwaukee Manager Harvey Kuenn. ''The drop-off in our long-ball power hasn't bothered me, though, because I sort of expected it. As good a hitting club as we are, no team is apt to hit 200 or more home runs two years in a row.''

Asked about this year's race, in which the Brewers find themselves trailing Baltimore by several games with time beginning to run out, Kuenn indicated that his club had actually been more consistent than many people realize.

''Except for a brief period in June, when we hit rock bottom, we've probably played as well as any team in our division,'' Harvey pointed out. ''Since then we've gotten the key hits when we've needed them and we've also played well defensively.

Unfortunately for Milwaukee, however, the Orioles have so far refused to let up - leaving the Brewers in a position where they'd need a big finish to close the gap at this point.

Last year, when Kuenn replaced Buck Rodgers as Milwaukee manager on June 2 the Brewers were in fifth place in the AL East and struggling. Harvey was so casual at the time about how he planned to manage the Brewers, saying he was just going to put his best players on the field and let them have fun, that a lot of people didn't take him seriously.

But Kuenn's low-key approach, plus the late-season acquisition of pitcher Don Sutton from Houston, helped bring Milwaukee a division-leading 95 victories. Later the Brewers, down 2-0 in their best-of-five playoffs with California, swept the Angels in the last three games to move into the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Although Milwaukee eventually lost, the TV cameras zoomed in on Harvey's craggy face and lumpy profile so regularly that he became an instant celebrity. And while Kuenn's face often seemed expressionless, he demonstrated even in defeat that he has a mind (as Yogi Berra is supposed to have said) like a steel tack!

''My philosophy that baseball should be fun for the people who play it hasn't changed,'' Kuenn told me. ''What's the sense of doing anything, especially if it's the way you make your living, if it isn't fun. I can't imagine anything more miserable or frustrating.

''But I have made some adjustments this year,'' he added. ''As a manager, I have to be realistic about my personnel and what it can and can't do. So without nearly as many home runs this year to carry us, we've had to sacrifice, steal, and hit behind the runner to move people around the bases.''

Also being realistic was General Manager Harry Dalton, who some 80 games into the season traded Gorman Thomas, the team's home run leader last year with 39, to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Rick Manning.

While Thomas's stomach-over-the-belt approach was popular with the fans, Dalton was not happy with Gorman's cavalier approach to conditioning, his defense, or his high number of strikeouts. Meanwhile, the younger, faster Manning has fit smoothly into Milwaukee's new image.

When catcher Ted Simmons who has raised his batting average some 50 points this season by going from a pull hitter to one who simply sprays the ball around , was asked how he felt when Milwaukee dropped into last place on June 22, Simmons replied:

''Well, if you figured I was worried, you were wrong. I knew this was a good team and with so much of the season still in front of us, I also knew that we had plenty of time to get back in the race. Others on this team felt the same way.

One problem besetting the Brewers from the beginning was that they had to go with a pitching staff minus 1981 Cy Young Award winner Rollie Fingers and 1982 recipient Pete Vuckovich.

Fingers, the bullpen ace who had 29 saves last year, won't be back until next season. But Vuckovich, an 18-game winner who underwent extensive shoulder surgery last spring, has surprised most observers by making it back to action this year. Pete made his 1983 debut on Aug. 31, pitching five strong innings against Seattle, then went five more Tuesday night against New York, holding the Yankees to one run in a game the Brewers eventually won 6-3.

''Losing both Fingers and Vuckovich for so long was a blow,'' Simmons noted, ''but with most of the season behind us now, I think maybe our pitching overall has actually been just a little bit better than it was last year.''

If so, considering these problems plus the inability of Sutton to win a game between May 1 and June 24, Kuenn deserves at least an outside shot at being named American League Manager of the Year.

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