Inside Pitch: Brewers a contender

Inside Pitch: Brewers a contender

Doug Melvin has been here before. Eleven years ago, as general manager of the Texas Rangers, Melvin helped that franchise reach the playoffs for the first time. Today the Milwaukee GM has the Brewers in contention for a playoff spot the franchise has been seeking since 1982.

"There's some similarities here, because when I was with Texas in '96, they hadn't won in 25 years, and we ended up getting into the postseason," Melvin said. "We've got that 25-year mark here with the Brewers since 1982, the last time they got to the postseason. So it is very similar in that regard."

It's a different league, of course, and the '96 Rangers won the American League West by 4 1/2 games. The Brewers are one game behind the Cubs in the National League Central.

"We've got a lot of younger players here. That Texas team, I think, was probably more experienced than what this team is, so there's more of a difference here in that regard," Melvin said. "But you know, the same excitement goes on, fans are excited about it. It's been a while."

Though the Brewers are close, they haven't won anything yet, and they face an uphill fight to get to the postseason. After a three-game series in Houston, they go to Atlanta for four against the Braves, then return to Miller Park for three games against St. Louis and four against San Diego.

The Cubs have five more games on their current homestand -- two with Cincinnati and three against Pittsburgh -- before finishing the regular season with a six-game road trip to Florida and Cincinnati.

Always looking to upgrade whenever possible, Melvin has been monitoring available personnel, but the Brewers' postseason fate rests with the current cast.

"There's not much that we can do at this time. We'll pretty much go with what we've got," he said. "We picked up Ray King [from Washington] the other day to come in and help us, because when we're playing the Reds and Cardinals, they've got some left-handed hitters, and Ray gives us balance.

"We have Brian Shouse doing a good job, but [manager] Ned [Yost] had to manage what time he would use him. Now he's got a couple of options in King and [Minor League callup] Mitch Stetter. I don't see anything else we'd probably do."

The Brewers do not play the Cubs again, so all they can do over the next 13 days is take care of each day's game and hope to get some help from the Reds, Pirates and Marlins.

"We've got, what, [13] games left?" Melvin said. "We hope we can take this thing home. It's not going to be easy, but we've got some quality players on this club."

And a GM who has been there.

Painting the corners

• Expect the Pirates to seek permission to interview Jack Zduriencik, Milwaukee's special assistant to the GM and director of amateur scouting, any day now. Melvin said that he hadn't been asked before the Brewers game at Houston on Monday.

"There's probably going to be a time this week that that will happen, but that's Pittsburgh's decision [whether] to tell the media," Melvin said. "I talked to [new Pittsburgh CEO] Frank Coonelly earlier, and I anticipate that they will [ask] in the next few days."

Zduriencik is in his eighth season with the Brewers, and before coming to Milwaukee, he was director of international scouting and special assistant to the GM for the Dodgers. Before that he held jobs with the Mets and the Pirates. Among the draftees Milwaukee signed under Zduriencik are Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks.

• Toronto rewarded John McDonald with a two-year, $3.8 million contract extension, as the Blue Jays are convinced that he is their shortstop next year.

McDonald, who turns 33 next week, is batting .246 with a homer and 28 RBIs, but his biggest value is his defense. He learned from the best in Omar Vizquel when the two were together in Cleveland, has been outstanding with the glove and, with a thin free-agent crop of shortstops this winter, it made sense to bring him back.

"We're comfortable with him, and he's earned the right to come back and be our shortstop," general manager J.P. Ricciardi said.

• Houston rookie center fielder Josh Anderson came within a hit of tying the franchise record for consecutive hits (eight), set by Julio Gotay in 1967 and matched by Art Howe in 1980. Anderson had five consecutive hits and then was hit by a pitch on Sunday against Pittsburgh, then went 2-for-2 against Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo on Monday night before Gallardo struck him out in the seventh inning.

The Astros are looking at Anderson as a possible leadoff candidate next season if they decide to move Hunter Pence further down in the batting order to take advantage of Pence's penchant for extra-base hits.

After leading the nation in stolen bases, with 57, in his senior year at Eastern Kentucky University, Anderson was a fourth-round selection in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft and earned All-Star honors each of the next four seasons. In 2004 he swiped 78 bases, the most in professional baseball.

"If he keeps going the way he's going, he's got the speed, he knows how to bunt, he looks like he has a good idea of the strike zone," Astros interim manager Cecil Cooper said. "[Defensively,] they tell me [he's] pretty good. I heard he was in an outfield with two other fellows and the fly balls never touched the ground. He can cover the ground. He showed to me last night [that] he can get there. We've just got to keep playing him and let him get comfortable. This is a tough place to play center field."

• Speaking of Cooper, don't be surprised if the Astros drop the "interim" tag soon, though the GM position is expected to be filled first. Philadelphia assistant GM Ruben Amaro appears to be the favorite, with former Phillies GM Ed Wade the dark horse.

• The Marlins are taking a look at Jeremy Hermida in the third spot in the order. The outfielder was a popular preseason pick to win Rookie of the Year honors in 2006, but injuries led to a disappointing season.

This year Hermida is showing why so many observers thought so highly of him. He's batting .287 with 17 homers and 55 RBIs in 111 games (376 at-bats). He's hitting .335 since the All-Star break, 104 points higher than he hit in the first half.

"He's got all the tools and looks like he's finally healthy and putting it all together," one NL scout said. "He's only going to get better, and think what that means when you've already got [Miguel] Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez. That's a big three."

• One of the reasons the Diamondbacks didn't fade after losing Randy Johnson was veteran left-hander Doug Davis. Davis, after a 5-10 start, has gone 8-2 with a 4.07 ERA since the All-Star break.

"He stepped up big time," one scout said. "He's getting ahead of hitters and using his defense and avoiding big innings. Without Davis they wouldn't be in first [place]."

• Kansas City's Luke Hochevar has made just two appearances since the Royals called him up, but the No. 1 pick of the 2006 Draft is already creating a buzz. He blanked the Yankees on three hits in three innings on Sept. 8, then pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings against the White Sox on Monday night.

"I was under the impression that he was a four-seam, 95 to 96 [mph], more of a power guy," manager Buddy Bell said after the outing against the Yankees. "I was pleasantly surprised, mostly by talking to [catcher Jason] LaRue, that his sinker was much more than I thought it was. I personally prefer a guy that throws 91, 92 with some heavy sink, as opposed to a guy that throws 95, 96 without any kind of movement, so I was encouraged by that."

LaRue was most impressed by Hochevar's presence on the mound.

"Most guys, in their first game, have that deer-in-the-headlights look," LaRue said. "But it seemed like nothing fazed him."

Look for the right-hander to compete for a rotation spot next spring.

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.