The Milwaukee Brewers already have had a very busy week. Owner Bud Selig was named to act as interim baseball commissioner on Wednesday and outfielder Robin Yount recorded his historic 3,000th hit later the same night. Now, they must refocus on a division race that could be decided in the next 10 days.
Little more than three weeks remain of the regular season, so the series between the Brewers and Orioles that begins tonight at Camden Yards -- along with a four-game series between the same teams in Milwaukee next weekend -- could determine whether either club makes a serious run at the first-place Toronto Blue Jays.
The Orioles seemed to be making that run last week, when they closed to within a half-game of the American League East lead during a successful West Coast trip. But the slumping Blue Jays rebounded at just the right time, and the Orioles lost four in a row to slip 3 1/2 games off the pace.
The situation has become critical for both divisional wannabes. The Orioles and Brewers need to win a decisive number of their seven head-to-head meetings to position themselves for a last-ditch run at the title.
"One thing Toronto has going for it is that we play seven times against each other," Paul Molitor said. "If we knock heads, they can gain ground by winning."
True, the Blue Jays stand to be the big winners if neither challenger is assertive enough to gain ground during the seven head-to-head games.
Every time the Orioles and Brewers trade victories, they lose precious time. Every time the Blue Jays win, they are guaranteed of gaining on someone.
This weekend is more crucial to the Brewers, who are 5 1/2 games back and need to pass two teams to get to the top of the standings. They did not help themselves with Wednesday night's late-inning loss to the Cleveland Indians, which left them needing a three-game sweep at Camden Yards to move into second place.
"If we honestly believe we're a better team than Baltimore, we have to show it now," Molitor said.
The Brewers have challenged the Orioles' lock on second place on a couple of other occasions, once moving into a tie for one day. Both times, they fell back quickly. The Orioles and Blue Jays handed the division lead back and forth throughout May and early June, but the Orioles have been in second place continuously since June 19.
So much for the big picture. What's going to happen this weekend?
If past performance is any indication, the Brewers are going to try and run the Orioles right out of the picture. They lead the major leagues with 210 stolen bases. They have equaled an 80-year-old American League record with 10 players stealing 10 bases or more. They have made the word reckless respectable.
Rookie of the Year hopeful Pat Listach ranks third in the league with 49 steals. Outfielder Darryl Hamilton ranks ninth with 33. Molitor has 25. Even power hitters Dante Bichette (15) and Franklin Stubbs (11) have gotten into the act.
In short, the Brewers present a serious problem for the Orioles, who have had very little success throwing out runners this year.
"I think, if you look at the numbers, those guys are in a class by themselves," manager Johnny Oates said. "They steal more bases than anybody and they get thrown out more than anybody else. They try to intimidate you with their base running."
They may have come to the right place. Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles has thrown out nine of the 65 runners who have attempted to steal against him this year (14 percent). The Orioles backups, Jeff Tackett and Mark Parent, have been more efficient in lesser roles, but the catcher is just part of the equation. Orioles pitchers have a history of trouble holding runners on base.
"We've got to try to do something to stop their running game," Oates said.
"We've been working on it the last week. Whether it does any good, we'll just have to wait and see. Nobody has done it too well."
TC It is no secret how Brewers manager Phil Garner conducts his running game.
The Brewers put a stopwatch on the opposing pitcher, timing his windup and delivery. If they like the reading, then just about everyone has the green light to go.
The Garner system was so effective against newly acquired Toronto pitcher David Cone that the Brewers stole a club record eight bases in a game a couple of weeks ago.
Brewers base stealers have been successful 210 times in 301 attempts, which works out to 70 percent.
The Orioles seem particularly vulnerable to the running game, but Oates isn't concerned that the Brewers will step it up this weekend.
"They can't step it up any," he said, jokingly. "They can't steal first base."
Oates has more than one offensive team to worry about. The Brewers lineup definitely presents problems, but so does the Orioles batting order. First baseman Glenn Davis is hurting again, and shortstop Cal Ripken continues to struggle at the plate, which could prompt another round of lineup changes this weekend.
The production gap in the middle of the lineup must be filled if the Orioles are to make a serious bid to win the division title.
Oates said Wednesday night that he would make a change if there is a need.
"We may be getting close to a need," he said. "Real close."
The Orioles are not without team speed, of course. Brady Anderson ranks second only to Cleveland outfielder Kenny Lofton among the league's base stealers, but the Orioles do not have enough speed throughout the lineup to force the action the way the Brewers do. Anderson doesn't think they should try.
"I think we have to play the same way we've been playing," he said. "You don't change your game plan just because they are going to be aggressive. We play aggressively, too. We just don't steal as many bases as they do."
The Brewers run out of necessity. They rank 23rd among the 26 major leagues with just 74 home runs. The Orioles feature a more balanced attack, with 80 stolen bases and 132 home runs, but they have not been assertive at the plate the past few days. That will have to change if they are going to make a move.
"We just need to play to the best of our ability," Oates said. "I'm not worried about the Brewers -- as far as the standings are
concerned. They are behind us. When they are ahead of us, I'll start worrying about them."
Brewers with 10 or more stolen bases:
Player. . ... . . .. Steals.. .......... . Att.
Pat Listach. . ......... 49. ................ 63
Darryl Hamilton. ....... 33. ................ 41
Paul Molitor. .......... 25. ................ 31
Scott Fletcher.......... 16.................. 25
Dante Bichette.......... 15.................. 21
B. J. Surhoff. ......... 11.................. 18
Franklin Stubbs......... 11.................. 19
Greg Vaughn............. 11. ................ 23
Kevin Seitzer........... 10.................. 18
Robin Yount............. 10. ................ 15