Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Brewers needed a players-only team meeting to get back on track. The simple message: Focus on fun.
No question something is going right again for this loose, light-hearted bunch just a few weeks later — with a winning weekend series on the road against the practically unbeatable, baseball-leading Los Angeles Dodgers to show for it.
The Brewers have found an ideal blend of cagey, experienced veterans with a youth movement - some players who fans of Milwaukee's Triple-A Colorado Springs affiliate are familiar with - that has proven invaluable to contend with the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs in the NL Central.
"That's been our formula all year, that's who we are, it really is," manager Craig Counsell said. "Our youth is who we are, and the energy that comes from that is who we are. And it's been the biggest reason kind of defining us this year and defining who we are together as a group, and that's good — the fact that it's having an impact on older players to me tells you it's working."
Catcher Stephen Vogt, claimed off waivers from Oakland on June 25, has been through a pennant push. Same goes for newly acquired infielder Neil Walker, a switch-hitter who came from the New York Mets earlier this month to provide an offensive boost from second base.
They're having a blast being part of this and helping guide the young Brewers who are going through a playoff chase for the first time.
"There's nothing better than playing meaningful baseball," Vogt said. "It was a good opportunity for me to do it."
The Brewers are right there in the wild-card race, too.
Milwaukee hasn't been to the postseason since losing in six games of the 2011 NL Championship Series to the Cardinals.
Counsell has been beyond impressed with how his entire club is handling the grind as September nears and the scoreboard watching begins in earnest.
"I think that's human nature, it's these guys that you go from a team that's maybe not in it to in it," Counsell said of guys like Vogt and Walker. "It's a motivation that no one, we can't provide, it's just the situation provides. And it's helpful. We're humans. ... No matter what happens the rest of the year, our youth is something that I'll continue to believe in and believe that it's creating something that's really meaningful and positive for us and a key to our success."
In a balanced offense, Eric Thames and Travis Shaw each have 27 home runs while Domingo Santana has hit 21 and Keon Broxton 20. Right-hander Zach Davies is 15-7, leading the rotation and tied for most wins in the majors.
Shortstop Orlando Arcia, who spent much of 2016 in Colorado Springs, is hitting .274 with 13 home runs and 42 RBIs.
The Brewers have shown a resiliency through the season's ups and downs — an even-keel approach infielder Eric Sogard insists starts from Counsell's leadership — and "shows up every day with the same attitude no matter where we're at and lets us go out and play our game and have fun."
"A lot of young guys who are still kind of making themselves but great players and willing to learn," Sogard said. "And the older guys who have kind of been around a couple times are good examples for them, so it's been good mix and great team chemistry all around. We have fun coming to play every day together. That's our goal to stay even keel. I think that's going to be when we're at our best."
What a drastic change from the final month last year for Milwaukee.
"When you're in a pennant race September is a little bit different," general manager David Stearns said. "Last year we were a little bit more concerned about development in September and getting guys up here who we wanted to experience September and see them perform at the major league level. This year the focus is going to be more on who can help us win games and what role they can potentially play on the team.
"... I do think the youth and the energy has really defined this club throughout the season. Not only this year but dating back to last year it's something that Craig and his staff did a really good job developing in here. The ability for each individual to be himself and not necessarily feel like players need to conform to a particular style, and I think that individuality has helped and certainly it has led to a lot of energy throughout the clubhouse."
It's hard to believe things were a bit bleak only weeks ago. After a 7-2 loss to the Twins on Aug. 10 sent Milwaukee to a five-game losing streak that became six the next day, starter Matt Garza called a team meeting to bring everybody back together and focus on what got the Brewers this far in the first place — a relaxed, upbeat style.
"We're right back in the thick of it where we've got a lot of baseball left," Vogt said. "We're where we want to be."
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