Students and community members alike were on hand for the second annual “Hot Stove” collaboration between UWM and the Milwaukee Brewers.
Tuesday afternoon, Brewers radio announcers Jeff Levering and Lane Grindle shared their favorite moments from the 2017 season, discussed the team’s offseason and fielded questions from the audience at the UWM Student Union.
For both Levering and Grindle, the success of 2017 came as a welcome surprise. The team won 73 games in 2016 and 86 in 2017 – both of which exceeded expectations for the team’s rebuild that began midway through 2015.
“It started to feel different. You could tell the team was already starting to gel a little bit, guys were starting to fit into some roles,” Grindle said in regard to 2017. “This is a different Brewers club than what we followed for most of the 2016 season.”
Those heightened expectations evolved into hope for a playoff run much sooner than originally anticipated.
“The Brewers are really in this thing. They’ve got a shot not only at the division (title) but at the wild card, too,” said Levering about his thoughts on the club after they won three games of four-game series over the Chicago Cubs last September.
With the rebuild chugging along, ownership and management took the baseball community by surprise this offseason, making moves to win now while also building toward success in the future. The team increased its payroll by 50 percent from 2017 to 2018, acquiring talent such as Lorenzo Cain, Jhoulys Chacin and Christian Yelich, and it may continue to rise with spring training yet to begin.
The new-look team delivers a sense of excitement for opening day that hasn’t been present in recent years. In Levering’s opinion, part of that excitement comes from the more complete, competitive roster. There might not be an awe-inspiring starter at second base, but he feels the depth of the position alleviates any concerns fans might have.
This season, the Brewers host the division rival St. Louis Cardinals April 2 for the home opener, sparking conversation about how the team is positioned to chase a division title – an accomplishment the team hasn’t achieved since 2011.
“If you’re looking at the Central (Division), you’re looking at three teams: the Cubs, the Cardinals and the Brewers,” said Levering. “The Brewers have improved their team, I think, more than anybody would have envisioned.”
A hidden key to the Brewers’ potential success in 2018 might be the bullpen, specifically the starter-reliever hybrid Josh Hader and closer Corey Knebel. Grindle and Levering discussed how uncertainty in the back end of the Cubs’ and Cardinals’ bullpens could give the Brewers an edge in the playoff hunt. The Cubs are prepared to pitch their fourth different closer in four seasons, and injuries and inexperience leave a question mark at closer for the Cardinals.
Of course, baseball season for the Brewers means baseball season for the Panthers, too. Traditionally, the Panthers and Brewers play an exhibition game against one another at spring training in Arizona – something only a handful of college teams have a chance to do. That game is not on the schedule for this season as of now, but Levering said that the Brewers are still trying to “cut through the red tape” and make it work.
“UWM is such a great sponsor of Brewers baseball. It’s a great baseball program,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to go see them, you should, because you get to see high-level baseball and you get to do it for free, too.”
Since Levering and Grindle spoke at last season’s Hot Stove, two Panther alumni made the jump to the professional ranks – catcher Daulton Varsho and pitcher Adam Reuss. They join a handful of other Panthers, including Brewers’ prospects Mitch Ghelfi and Josh Uhen, to go pro in recent years.
The relationship between the Brewers and Panthers will continue throughout the season. On May 12, the Panthers will host Horizon League rival Wright State at Miller Park. UWM is also sponsoring a vintage snapback hat giveaway at Miller Park on Saturday, Sept. 15. The Brewers will also continue Student Nights at Miller Park – high school and college students can receive discounted tickets and enjoy a discounted menu at all Brewers’ Friday home games.