LAST WEEK I was in Pittsburgh on business and I had the opportunity to take in a businessperson's special featuring the stumbling Pirates against the red-hot Brewers.
I had been looking forward to the game for a number of reasons. I love PNC Park, which is as good a park as there is in baseball; ever since I became governor I have been rooting for the Bucs to turn it around; and I wanted to take a firsthand look at the Brewers, as I have a hunch the Phillies may face them in the NLCS.
Everyone knows that the Pirates have become the gold standard for baseball futility. They have had a losing record for 18 straight seasons. I rooted for them as governor because I love an underdog and because it was clear that they would not pose a threat to the Phils. This year they got off to a great start and on July 19 they were in first place in the NL Central with a 51-44 record. Enthusiasm in Pittsburgh was incredible. Attendance was way up and I began to fear that I might have to begin rooting against the Bucs when they played the Phils in the playoffs (then I remembered that I wasn't governor anymore, so it didn't matter).
But alas, the Pirates couldn't stand success and they went into the tank; since that day they have gone 11-29.
I couldn't help but reflect on all the trouble I got into in Pittsburgh when my Philadelphia sports loyalty inevitably became apparent, especially in the case of the Eagles and Steelers. Of my 8 years as governor, there were two seasons when both teams were in the conference finals and there was the potential for an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl.
In 2004, the Eagles were playing Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game and the Steelers were facing the Patriots at Heinz Field. The week before, I was in Pittsburgh and I was asked who I would root for in a Birds-Steelers Super Bowl. I was terrified. I was up for reelection just 2 years later and western Pennsylvania had never been a bastion of support for me (and little did I know that I would be running against Lynn Swan, a Steelers icon).
Should I take the safe route by saying I would just root for a great game and hope the best team wins? Nah! I'm no wuss. I said that I hoped both teams won their conference championships, but in the Super Bowl I'd have to root for my hometown Birds.
It caused a furor in the Steel City, so a day later I tried to explain. I said to the people of Pittsburgh, "Look, if you had a mayor of Pittsburgh who had been a Steelers season ticketholder for 30 years who became governor, and he said he would be neutral in an Eagles-Steelers Super Bowl, you would think he was a traitor, wouldn't you?"
Interestingly, that argument worked with real football fans. They got it, but the casual fan didn't care. I was still a bum in their eyes. Thankfully, perhaps as a result of a little divine intervention, the all-PA championship never became a reality. While the Birds beat the Falcons and made it to Jacksonville, Big Ben threw three picks in the AFC title game and the Patriots became the Eagles' opponent. (The rest of the story was sickening for some of us.)
In 2009, the Steelers won the AFC championship but the Eagles lost a game they should have won against the Cardinals. Once again I had dodged a bullet, but, truthfully, I really wanted both teams to win. Heck, I didn't have to run for reelection again and I really wanted to go on the "Today Show" and instead of betting Arizona governor Jan Brewer that the Steelers would beat the Cardinals, I would have been able to bet myself.
But back to the baseball game. The conventional wisdom is that the Phillies will play Arizona in the NLDS and the Braves will face the Brewers, and the teams with the better rotations - the Phils and the Braves - will meet for the pennant.
I'm not so sure.
The Brewers are a very good team with terrific balance between pitching and hitting. On offense they have two MVP candidates in Ryan Braun (.331 batting average, 25 home runs, 88 runs batted in) and Prince Fielder (.294, 29, 102). Their outfield is outstanding with Braun, Nyjer Morgan (.311), and Corey Hart (21 HRs). They also have one of the game's best young catchers, Jonathan Lucroy, and a terrific second baseman in Rickie Weeks.
Milwaukee's pitching might not be as strong as the Braves', but it is awfully good. Their ace, Zack Greinke, is 13-5. Not far behind are Yovani Gallardo (15-8, 3.37 ERA) and Shaun Marcum (11-5, 3.24). Their fourth starter is familiar to us, Randy Wolf, who is having a solid year (11-8, 3.37). The Brewers back up this solid rotation with a very good bullpen. Their closer, John Axford, has 40 saves, a 2.30 ERA and 73 strikeouts with only 24 walks in 62 2/3 innings pitched. He is backed up by three solid setup men: Francisco Rodriguez (3.12 ERA), Takashi Saito (2.33) and LaTroy Hawkins (2.63).
The Brewers have a 9 1/2-game lead in the NL Central and have won seven of their last 10 games. If they somehow manage to ride this hot streak all the way to October, they could be a real problem in the playoffs. But, as has been the case for the entire season, we can take confidence in knowing that the Phillies have the best team on paper and on the field.
And while it has been great to watch the Phils manhandle the competition, there is something unsettling about cruising through the season as the clear favorite who should win it all. We all know that the playoffs are a new season, and the Brewers look a bit reminiscent of the 2010 Giants (except for the fact that they can actually hit). Although it is important to be mindful of the other contenders, all we can do as the postseason approaches is focus on the fact that the Phillies' lineup is loaded with big-time players, and they'll have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels on the mound for three out of every four playoff games.