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BREWERS: Melvin confident he's built a contender

Doug Melvin had statistical evidence to back up his argument. The Milwaukee Brewers' executive vice president and general manager had been asked whether or not his ballclub had evolved into a year-in, year-out contender. "I believe so. A lot of p...

Doug Melvin had statistical evidence to back up his argument.

The Milwaukee Brewers' executive vice president and general manager had been asked whether or not his ballclub had evolved into a year-in, year-out contender.

"I believe so. A lot of people don't know this," he said, "but we've won more games than the Cubs the last four years."

Chicago, of course, is gunning for its third straight National League Central title and is being touted as a World Series contender. The Brewers, meanwhile, just broke through a 26-year playoff drought last season and enter this season minus the player most responsible for that return to the postseason -- pitcher CC Sabathia, who signed a mega-contract with the New York Yankees in the offseason.

But, while making the playoffs isn't yet a norm for Milwaukee, the numbers bear out that the club, which was rooted to the bottom of the Central from 2002-04 and went 15 years without a winning season after 1992, has worked its way into the upper echelon of the NL over the past four years.

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During that span, the Brewers' 329 wins rank fifth among NL teams, behind the Mets (357), Phillies (354), Cardinals (347) and Astros (330). And Milwaukee's total is more than that of teams such as the Cubs (327, though that number is largely the result of their 66-win debacle in 2006), Dodgers (325) and Diamondbacks (325).

"If you look back at that, I think that people have to take us seriously," said Melvin, who was hired in September 2002 and was given a contract extension through the 2012 season over the offseason. "We have a good ballclub, but we're in a tough division. The Cardinals are always competitive, the Astros are competitive, the Cubs, we know what they're like.

"But I think the strides that we've made as an organization at the major league club, and I think that message of winning more games than the Cubs the last four years, I think that's a strong message that we are a club that's a contending club."

The Brewers can continue to make that case Tuesday afternoon, when they open the season in San Francisco with a three-game series against the Giants before returning to Miller Park for Friday's home opener against the Cubs.

Milwaukee is looking for its third straight winning season, after going 83-79 and finishing two games back of Chicago for the Central title and a playoff berth in 2007 and winning 90 games to secure the NL wild card by one game over the Mets last season. Those represent the first back-to-back winning seasons the Brewers have had since 1991-92, and they haven't had three in a row since the early 1980s -- they posted six straight from 1978-83.

Milwaukee will again rely heavily on its young core -- players such as left fielder Ryan Braun (.285 batting average, 37 home runs, 106 RBIs last season), first baseman Prince Fielder (.276, 34, 102) and pitcher Yovani Gallardo (1.88 ERA in four starts during an injury-marred season).

The Brewers won't have Sabathia to carry the load this time in their first season under manager Ken Macha. But it is Melvin's hope that last year's postseason experience will benefit his young group over the next six months.

"It'll show up over the course of the season," he said. "The younger players will know how long a baseball season is. When you play in the minor leagues, it's a five-month season; when you play in the big leagues it's a six-month, 162-game season. And you know it comes down to the wire.

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"So I'm hoping the experience will show the players that games in April mean a lot, too, because we ... got into the postseason by one game (last year), and the year before we lost out by two games. So the experience factor shows you what a grind September can be, and that games in April mean a lot also over the course of the year. So that's where there's an understanding that any pennant race, they almost all are going to go down to the final week of the season."

Brewers lose opener

SAN FRANCISCO -- Travis Ishikawa hit a three-run triple, Aaron Rowand had three RBIs and the Giants overcame Tim Lincecum's struggles for a 10-6 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday in the majors' final opener.

Lincecum walked leadoff hitter Rickie Weeks on five pitches right after heroic pilot Chesley Sullenberger threw out the first pitch, and the 24-year-old right-hander's day got no better. He made it through just three innings, yielding three runs, four hits and three walks in a scattered performance that included five strikeouts, but not much more to embrace.

Milwaukee also didn't get much from Jeff Suppan (0-1), who hit an RBI double but gave up six runs in four innings as the unlikely opening-day starter for a club that lost its top two pitchers from last season's run to the NL wild card. Weeks and Bill Hall hit run-scoring doubles in manager Ken Macha's debut with the Brewers, who left 11 men on base.

"That wasn't very pretty," Macha said. "By my count, there were 13 walks and four hit batters. We had 20 baserunners and only got five runs. If you told me we'd get Lincecum out of the game in the third, I'd be feeling pretty good. We just didn't pitch very well."

Rain pelted the Giants' waterfront ballpark for most of the morning, but it abated before game time and eventually gave way to warm sunshine, despite bleak weather forecasts. Both managers had made contingency plans for a doubleheader Wednesday, when Randy Johnson will make his Giants debut against burgeoning Brewers ace Yovani Gallardo.

-- Copyright (c) 2009, The Wisconsin State Journal/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune

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