Gene's Blog: Changing sports seasons bring hope for different reasons

Gene's Blog: Managing sports expectations

Kids are school-bound. Labor Day brings an end to summer with July now something that lives on only in our memories and in cellphone video.

Baseball wraps up as football begins. Locally, we find our Brewers in a playoff quest amid championship talk for both the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin Badgers. It's a good time to be a Wisconsin sports fan

Is IS, isn't it?

The Brewers won their fourth straight series with Sunday's win at Washington, bouncing back after a crushing, late-inning loss the night before. They start the new week in the wild-card lead as the Cubs arrive for a key three-game set, the first of six against the division leaders this month, contests that'll go a long way in deciding Milwaukee's playoff fate.

The joy of this past spring's hot start--one that put the Crew in first and 18 games over .500--started to fade with that pre-All-Star game sweep at the hands of the Pirates. The Brewers have been playing break-even ball ever since with the bullpen showing signs of strain and starters consistently struggling in the early innings. Manager Craig Counsell is once again defending his use of reliever Josh Hader as barstool skippers state-wide wonder why Hader and Jeremy Jeffress aren't deployed every night. Play for today and let tomorrow take care of itself, I've heard some of them say. The beefs grow louder when Milwaukee's bullpen lets late leads slip away, like the one Saturday night that saw three relievers not named "Hader" turn victory into defeat. 

Starters are having a hard time getting out of the early innings unscathed of late, raising new questions about GM David Stearns' decision to not land another rotational arm. He tried and failed to lure Matt Harvey away from the Reds and instead acquired the Nats' Gio Gonzalez over the weekend, one of three deadline beating deals meant to fortify down the stretch. Is it enough? You can bet the barroom howls will grow ever-louder each time a starter flounders or with each Jonathan Schoop misadventure at the dish. Give Counsell credit for this: he gave the embattled Junior Guerra every chance to save his spot, with Sunday's quick exit in D-C almost certainly his swan song, what with Gonzalez and freshly healed Zach Davies waiting in the wings.

Counsell is nothing if not consistent: this is a team living and dying with the long ball, a club that doesn't usually hit in bunches, one that worries more about launch angles than hit-and-run scenarios. Fans loved it when it paid benefits this spring. They'll question it if the approach fails to produce down the stretch. 

The Crew starts the final month of the regular season while the Packers and Badgers start their campaigns. Green Bay is once again a Super Bowl contender but is no longer a lock for the NFC North title, at least not until the Packers knock the Vikings off that perch. Minnesota only got better in the off-season, while the resurgent Bears swooped in to snag pass-rusher extraordinaire Khalil Mack, handing the Raiders at least two first-round draft picks in return. Green Bay sorely needs the likes of a Mack-like presence on defense and there are questions about GM Brian Gutekunst's effort to land him. After all, they say, Aaron Rodgers' clock continues to tick and the franchise's time with him is running short--shouldn't every trigger be pulled NOW to maximize Super Bowl chances? Rodgers' newly signed deal may have hamstrung the team's ability to pay moving forward, with Rogers and Mack sucking up a disproportionate amount of available salary, leaving Green Bay hard pressed to surround two mega-stars with playoff-worthy supporting talent.

There's national title buzz in Madison with Bucky ranked in the top five. Friday night's blowout win over a non-conference cupcake did little to stymie such chat but the reality is this: Wisconsin has a totally reconfigured and untested defense, plus road games at Iowa, Michigan and Penn State. Yes, the overall schedule is soft-ish, but it's no cakewalk. Wisconsin will be a Big Ten force this fall, but there are too many questions that have to be answered before we can make any BCS plans this December.

One of the things we love about living here is the change of seasons--we get four of 'em, in all of their glory (although spring has been a recent no-show). Each brings new hope and expectations that have to be managed. A season winds down for a Brewers club that's been totally reshaped since it left Arizona in April, a roster re-populated with all manner of fresh talent. Will it be enough to put Milwaukee in the postseason? We'll know in 27 or so games from now, many of those against divisional foes.

Will the Packers be able to dethrone the Purple Gang and perhaps get a home playoff game/playoff bye? The offense will certainly produce if Rodgers is upright but that will depend on the health of the starting o-line, perhaps the thinnest position on the club in terms of replacement talent. And the aforementioned defense looks to be a new animal headed by a fresh coordinator but still pestered by doubts about the unit's ability to get to and then sack the opposition QB. 

Bring on the new season, for all of the right reasons. There's hope. There's drama. There's worry and doubt. There are expectations to manage amid titles (plural) that could be won. It's fun to be in the hunt, be it in horsehide or pigskin. It would be even better to nail a couple of these lofty goals down for a change around here.


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