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The scene last Saturday night was hauntingly reminiscent of the World Series the Brewers played in not so very long ago. There was a huge chanting and screaming crowd of 52,795 in Milwaukee County Stadium, and the home nine had its back to the wall again. The Brewers were leading the White Sox 8-7 with two out in the ninth inning of the third game of a taut four-game series between the lakeshore rivals, but the Sox had the tying run on second and the potential winning run on first with Tom Paciorek, who had earlier tripled in a run, at bat. Chicago's Carlton Fisk had just hit a run-scoring single off Tom Tellmann that had propelled Milwaukee Manager Harvey Kuenn into action.
Tellmann had enjoyed a glorious eighth inning, having struck out sluggers Greg Luzinski and Ron Kittle in succession with tantalizing breaking pitches, and Charlie Moore had provided him with an insurance run with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the eighth. Now, after two hits and a walk, Tellmann had come a cropper in the ninth, and Kuenn wanted the mammoth Peter (Big Foot) Ladd to face Paciorek. A few months ago, bringing in Ladd to face anyone more threatening than Richard Simmons would have been tantamount to dousing a forest fire with gasoline, but Kuenn now had cause to believe that this was the stout Ladd of a season ago.
Ladd, all 6'3", 240 pounds of him, completed his warmup tosses and then looked to rookie Catcher Bill Schroeder for the sign. Ladd fired a fastball, and Paciorek got not quite all of it, backing Leftfielder Ben Oglivie to the warning track, but no further. Game over.
On Sunday the Brewers continued their resolute march from near oblivion and shame to what they are convinced will be another American League pennant and, this time, a World Series triumph. In another improbable one-run seat-grabber, Milwaukee came from five runs behind to score seven times in the fifth, only to have the White Sox tie it up with two runs in the eighth. Then, in their half of the eighth, the Brewers, renowned for their power, scored the winning run when Jim Gantner squeezed Oglivie home from third. Oglivie had gotten that far after walking and advancing on Rick Manning's soft ground single to right.
The Brewers finished the weekend in fifth place in the American League East, but they were only two games out of first and 11 games over .500, with 12 wins in their last 14 games and 14 in their last 18. Since June 22, when their dismal early play had dropped them into last place, they had won 22 of 28. They had also won 15 of their last 21 one-run games.
Milwaukee's weekend opponents, the Chisox, have been only slightly less resurgent. Since May 26, they had won 32 of 54 games, the best record for the last two months in the American League West and one good enough to make them first in an airtight division race.
Hardhearted observers might withhold sympathy from a Milwaukee team that won 95 games and a pennant in 1982, but to do so would ignore the devastation inflicted on a pitching staff that even at full strength was considered a weak link. The Brewers began the season missing not one but two righthanded Cy Young Award winners, Rollie Fingers, the class of '81, and Pete Vuckovich, '82. Fingers, who has 301 career saves, was first stricken last September with a torn muscle in his pitching forearm that kept him out of the playoffs and the World Series. The Brewers hoped he'd be their saving grace this year, but he developed elbow problems in the spring and had to have bone chips surgically removed on June 10. He hasn't thrown a ball in competition all year. Neither has Vuckovich, victim in spring training of the dread rotator-cuff muscle tear that generally does not merely interrupt a career but ends it. Take away Vuckovich's 18 wins and Fingers' 29 saves in 1982, and what's left of a careworn and undermanned pitching staff? Not much, said most experts.
The Brewers never agreed. To replace Fingers they had Ladd, who, with two saves against the Angels in the playoffs, had given notice that he could handle pressure, despite his subsequent failure in the World Series. To replace Vuckovich, they were counting on 38-year-old Don Sutton, winner of 265 major league games, whom they'd acquired from Houston during last year's pennant-stretch run. Sutton had pitched in only seven games for Milwaukee in '82, but his 4-1 performance had helped put the Brewers over the top. He and they felt that in a full season he could win close to Vuckovich's 18 big ones.
Ah, the best laid plans.... Poor Ladd couldn't get anyone out at the start of this season. "My pitching mechanics were wacky," he acknowledges. "My fastball wasn't like it had been the previous year. I was doing everything wrong a pitcher could." On May 20, he was sent to the Brewers' Class AAA farm team in Vancouver to work out whatever it was that was making him such a pitiful giant. The demotion, said Ladd most appropriately, "was a relief." His departure left Milwaukee without a tested late-inning fireman, and as Brewer front office executive Sal Bando says, "You can't win in the big leagues without a guy who can finish a game for you." Bando should know. He played with Fingers on the superb Oakland teams of the early '70s. The Brewers tried all their other relievers in the late spot, and while some did well enough, none was consistent. They even gave the once mighty Mike Marshall, attempting a comeback at age 40, a tryout, but found him wanting, too.
For his part, Sutton started the season as if to make Vuckovich look like just another craggy face. Sutton won four of his first five starts and had a 1.85 ERA through May 1. But he didn't win again from then until June 24, starting eight times and losing three games.