NLDS hero Morgan personifies Brewers' rise behind Attanasio
The Brewers' NLDS victory continued a progression under owner Mark Attanasio
With Attanasio's blessing, GM Doug Melvin made moves to improve the team
One addition was Nyjer Morgan, who delivered the game-winning hit in the 10th
MILWAUKEE -- The ball Nyjer Morgan struck off Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz was bounding its way up the middle and toward the outfield, but his celebration didn't wait for the formality of Carlos Gomez to round third and score the game-winning run.
Morgan flashed the Brewers' trademark "Beast Mode" sign -- arms raised and outstretched to mimic claws -- within the first 30 feet of his path toward first, and soon after touching the base, he cycled off the dirt basepath toward the mounting celebration near home plate.
With a 3-2, 10th-inning victory over the Diamondbacks and a berth in the National League Championship Series secured as soon as Gomez touched home plate, the dugout emptied of players -- "kind of early," admitted the day's starting pitcher, Yovani Gallardo -- to meet their teammate at the plate.
Upon scoring, Gomez ran toward the dugout, where he was first met by what appeared to be a trespassing fan casually dressed 54-year-old man with dark frame glasses, wearing light-colored Nikes, jeans and a gray hoodie that concealed a navy Brewers t-shirt. Instead of rushing to his teammates, Gomez stopped to catch the fan who was vaulting himself into his arms.
"You've got to give it to the boss first," Gomez said, smartly, after the game. "And then your teammates."
Indeed, that was no ordinary fan but team owner Mark Attanasio who had leaped the rail from his first-row seat to join the fray.
"It's just the euphoria of a great, great win," Attanasio said. "I haven't done that in seven years. I haven't run out there on the field."
This Game 5 win over a resilient Diamondbacks club was worth making an exception for. Attanasio purchased the team before the 2005 season and promised a playoff berth within five years. They reached the 2008 postseason in year four of that plan and now have won the franchise's first playoff series since 1982, some 10,590 days ago, back when Milwaukee was an American League club and 11 of the 25-man playoff roster weren't born yet.
"He said when he bought the club that he was going to make them winners," said Paul Attanasio, the owner's younger brother by two years, "and he did. Who does what they say they're going to do?
"There's no doubt in my mind that, with the exception of his wedding day and the birth of his two children, this is probably the happiest day of his life."
Mark Attanasio, a Los Angeles-based investment management principal, inherited a moribund franchise that had finished in last place each of the previous three seasons and had averaged 98 losses, though it was a city that would quickly embrace a winner. It helped that Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Gallardo were already in the farm system and Ryan Braun was the club's first draft choice after the ownership change.
Attanasio was eager to learn -- he sat in the draft room to watch the front office's deliberations that first year -- but not meddlesome. And he was as financially supportive as he could be, expanding the team's payroll from less than $28 million in the year before he arrived to $80 million or more in each of the past four years, keeping general manager Doug Melvin in place and allowing him to be creative with the increased budget.
"And usually it's more me pressing Doug," Attanasio said on the eve of the series, "'Can we have this, can we have that,' rather than a general manager coming to me saying, 'Gee, I made this mistake, I need more money.'
"I don't think Doug has ever come to me and said, 'I need more money.' He's always been able to work within whatever budget we have. And that gives the ownership group a lot of confidence that we can support him when he says, 'Hey, I've got this idea.' And it's really focused on baseball, but it always makes sense with him, I think."
Success breeds success. In each of the past five seasons the Brewers have drawn 2.75 million or more fans to Miller Park. Melvin has used that newfound flexibility to wrap up Braun, the team's MVP candidate who went 9-for-18 with five extra-base hits in the series, through at least 2020. Melvin traded most of the farm system for established starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, whose sixth-inning RBI single gave the Brewers a 2-1 lead.
And Melvin made several in-season moves, too, acquiring reliever Francisco Rodriguez (who escaped a jam to throw a shutout eighth inning), third baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. (who started every game and went 6-for-16) and the game's starting centerfielder. When the Brewers traded a prospect to the Nationals for Morgan on March 27, just days before the season started, it seemed like transaction-page fodder more than impact acquisition.
Morgan had been traded twice before, seemingly having worn out his welcome in each of his previous stops, but he excelled in Milwaukee, batting .304 for the year and delivering the gamewinner on Friday night. His role in this season's success landed him on a Sports Illustrated cover alongside stars Braun and Prince Fielder.
"In the 10th inning I thought Carlos and Nyjer were going to make something happen," Attanasio said. "They've been doing it all year. They've been overshadowed by all the stars, but Nyjer's been the man all year. He didn't end up on your cover for nothing. So much for the Sports Illustrated jinx."
The year wasn't without blemishes for Morgan -- most notably, after a heated game with the Cardinals, he threw his chewing tobacco at pitcher Chris Carpenter and called Albert Pujols "Alberta" in a postgame tweet -- but the city of Milwaukee has otherwise embraced his excitable presence, manifested most clearly in what he calls his gentleman's alter ego, Tony Plush.
Morgan had been 1-for-11 in the series before going 2-for-5 in the deciding Game 5.
"It's all about how you finish, not how you start," Morgan said after the game, wearing an Army-style helmet clad in Brewers logos. "Plush is always going to finish strong, baby."
Said Braun, "I think people lose sight of how great he's been for us on the field. He comes to the ballpark with a new personality every day, but he's so successful once he's on the field. I said this the other day, Tony Clutch is his new character. He's Tony Clutch."
Milwaukee nearly let the game get away, as closer John Axford blew a ninth-inning save when Arizona's Willie Bloomquist singled in a run on what had been designed as a squeeze play.
But the Brewers did not disappoint the 44,028 fans who filled Miller Park. They were baseball's best team at home this season, winning 57 games (five more than any other club), including all three games at Miller Park in the NLDS against the Diamondbacks. They'll retain homefield advantage in the next round against the surprising Cardinals, who upset the NL's top-seeded Phillies.
For a day, at least, before embarking on its first NLCS in hopes of reaching only its second World Series -- the Brewers lost to the Cardinals in seven games in 1982 -- the city and club will celebrate this long sought-after series victory.
"We're not done yet," Attanasio said, "but I've got to say, I never I understood how hard this was, but right now I understand the euphoria we have."