MILWAUKEE -- Right fielder-turned-first baseman Corey Hart might have best summed up the Brewers' schizophrenic season."We were late," Hart said with a shrug. The Brewers were late in overcoming early-season injuries and midseason bullpen blow-ups, late in discovering the sort of hot streak that had propelled them to 96 regular-season wins in 2011, to the National League Central crown, to within two wins of the World Series and to sky-high expectations for '12.
They did eventually discover a winning streak, and a really good one at that. Twenty-four wins in 30 games lifted Milwaukee from 12 games under .500 -- and 12 1/2 games behind the NL's second Wild Card spot on the morning of Aug. 20 -- to six games over .500, and only 1 1/2 games out on the night of Sept. 21.Over the season's final six weeks, the Brewers saved their season. But they were late. "It was amazing, the run that we went on to get into contention," said left fielder Ryan Braun, who put together another season worthy of NL Most Valuable Player Award consideration. "I think that we're all proud of that. Ultimately, we're disappointed we didn't end up back in the postseason, but it certainly wasn't for a lack of effort." How will he remember 2012? "I'll look back at it as a positive, for sure," Braun said. "Considering everything that we've gone through, considering we were 12 games under [.500] in August, to get back to the point we were 'in it' until ... three games left, I think is something we can look at and be somewhat proud of." While Braun was feeling proud, others were wondering, "What if?" What if the offense had not sputtered early and dumped the Brewers under .500 after April 23? What if the injury bug hadn't bitten the Opening Day first baseman (Mat Gamel), the Opening Day shortstop (Alex Gonzalez) and No. 5 starter (Chris Narveson) in a disheartening two-week span in April and early May? What if the bullpen had performed like it did in the second half of 2011? Heck, what if the bullpen had just been average, instead of leading the Majors in blown saves? "I can't think that way," manager Ron Roenicke said. "It's a long season, and we're going to go through [periods] where our offense isn't going to hit, where our defense is going to be bad, our pitching is going to be bad. That's part of the season, and why you play so many games. "Nobody is going to be good in all those areas the whole season, so, no, I don't think like that." If one facet of the team is to blame for the Brewers' fall from 96 wins and a division title in 2011 to third place in '12, it was the bullpen, which returned many of the key players who were so key to the team's success the season before but did not perform anywhere near the same level. The first sign of trouble came May 11, a 13-inning marathon against the Cubs that spanned more than five hours and included John Axford's first blown save since the previous April. It snapped a streak of 49 successful saves, the fourth-longest run of success for a closer in Major League history, and prompted Axford to leave a humorous note for the media, apologizing for his postgame absence. His wife, Nicole, had gone into labor. Soon thereafter, the issue was not funny anymore. Axford had nine blown saves compared to two all of last season. He was removed from the closer's role in mid-July, but Francisco Rodriguez fared no better. The Brewers suffered blown saves in all three games of a dismal series at Philadelphia from July 23-25, which pushed management to trade the team's best starter, Zack Greinke, a potential free agent who had turned down an offer in excess of $100 million to stay. The Brewers planned to use the final two months to evaluate young starters like Mark Rogers, Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg. It looked at the time like a white flag on the season. Only it wasn't. Axford reclaimed closer duties in August and the rest of the bullpen fell in line. The Brewers began their winning streak on Aug. 20, the start of 13 consecutive games against the Cubs and Pirates. The Brewers won 11 of those games, and players slowly began to notice that they were creeping up the NL Wild Card standings. The first step was getting to .500. Did Roenicke believe they could get there? "When we got at our lowest point? I still thought we could, but I had some doubts if we were going to," the manager admitted. "Why it turned around? Hard to really say. We had all of these young guys come up and they all performed well. The bullpen pulled it back together. And the offense has been good. Coming into the season thinking we were going to score more runs than we did last year? I wasn't thinking that way." The winning streak has completely changed the discussion about 2013. The Brewers will probably not be anybody's preseason favorite, not with an unproven starting rotation and a rebuilt bullpen. But Roenicke went into the offseason feeling a lot better about his club's ability to contend. "I learned they don't quit," Roenicke said. "We never gave up at all. I don't care how bad we were playing, how many saves we blew in a row, we'd come back the next game and play a great game. These guys go at it the right way, and that makes my job a lot easier." Without naming names, did anyone disappoint Roenicke in that regard? "No," Roenicke insisted. "Nobody." Record: 83-79, third in NL Central Defining moment: Randy Wolf's final Brewers start was an 8-0 loss to the Phillies on Aug. 19, the day a surprise storm caused a rare rain delay at Miller Park and the Brewers fell to a season-worst 12 games under .500. But the low point became a turning point, as the Brewers rattled off 24 wins in their next 30 games to surge into contention. What went right: Braun emerged from a winter of turmoil the best way he knew how -- by hitting. He's an extremely viable candidate for back-to-back NL MVP Awards, though catchers Buster Posey and Yadier Molina also have a case. ... Aramis Ramirez started slow, as usual, but finished strong, as usual, helping the Brewers overcome the loss of Prince Fielder to free agency. Amazingly, the offense was even better post-Prince. ... Yovani Gallardo stepped up as a No. 1 starter in the wake of the Greinke trade. In one stretch, the Brewers won 11 consecutive Gallardo starts. ... The kids stepped up, too. Martin Maldonado helped the Brewers overcome a bizarre injury suffered by catcher Jonathan Lucroy, "veteran" rookie Jim Henderson more than anyone else helped stabilize the bullpen, and Mike Fiers, Peralta and Rogers were excellent in the starting rotation. What went wrong: Early on, the offense slumped and injuries mounted. But the Brewers might have overcome those issues if the bullpen did not struggle so mightily in the middle of the season. Give Axford and Co. credit for turning things around in August, but by then it was too late.