Bold Brew: Milwaukee came on strong in '17

Bold Brew: Milwaukee came on strong in '17

MILWAUKEE -- A little more than seven months ago, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, with a smile on his face, urged the Brewers' mostly inexperienced roster to seize the opportunities afforded by an organization entering its second full season of rebuilding.

Rebuilding seemed so much more distant than that after the Brewers remained in postseason contention until Game No. 161 of 162.

"It was not expected this season," Attanasio said during the final homestand. "Or, if somebody did expect it, I'd like to know who it was. Maybe [Brewers manager] Craig Counsell might have expected it. Craig said, 'Don't put any limits on the team,' and then [GM] David [Stearns] adopted that way of speaking. That certainly worked here."

Here are five storylines to remember from 2017:

1. Bucking expectations
Prior to Opening Day, nobody gave the Brewers much, if any, chance of making the postseason. They did not win a spot in the postseason, of course, but the Brewers did build a 5 1/2-game lead in the National League Central at the All-Star break before pushing their postseason hopes to the final series of the regular season. They blew past those win projections along the way for the 17th winning season in 49 seasons as a franchise.

"It's a position nobody expected us to be in," said Ryan Braun, the only player remaining from Milwaukee's last playoff team in 2011. "It's such a unique learning experience to play games of this magnitude with this intensity, and to just understand that when you continue to compete and put yourself in a position to win, over time, you'll come through."

2. Pitching leads the way
For years, the Brewers owned an offensive identity, the result of drafting hitters from Prince Fielder to Braun. But the 2017 club was led by the pitching, an especially surprising development considering that of the Opening Day starting rotation of Junior Guerra, Zach Davies, Wily Peralta, Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson (plus Matt Garza on the disabled list), only Davies and Anderson remained at the end.

Nelson throws complete game

Guerra and Peralta were demoted to the Minors after a string of poor starts, Garza faded out of the pitching picture in August and Nelson was lost to a season-ending shoulder injury in September. Yet the Brewers entered the final weekend of the regular season with baseball's 10th-best staff ERA (4.11) and eighth-best bullpen ERA (3.82).

Credit pitching coach Derek Johnson, who draws raves from players for his attention to detail, and great performances from Nelson (3.49 ERA), Anderson (2.74 ERA), Davies (17-9 with a 3.90 ERA) and closer Corey Knebel, who replaced Feliz and set records for consecutive games with a strikeout on the way to the All-Star Game.

When they rode their relievers hard down the stretch, the Brewers were left to ponder just how much losing Nelson impacted their final push.

3. Thames' enormous April
After putting up video-game numbers in three seasons in South Korea, Thames returned to Major League Baseball as something of an unknown. That changed quickly, as Thames became one of the biggest stories in the game while setting franchise records with 11 home runs and 28 runs scored in April. His production fell after that, but Thames' early-season surge put the Brewers on the map as an intriguing sleeper, even if it came with some attention he could have done without.

Must C: Thames' 11th homer

Cubs starter John Lackey drew the ire of the Brewers when he suggested that Thames' success "makes you scratch your head," though it eventually produced the most memorable quote of the Brewers' season.

"If people keep thinking I'm on stuff, I'll be here every day," Thames said. "I have a lot of blood and urine."

4. Arcia, Hader lead emerging players
The Brewers won 73 games in 2016, but they could call the season a success because individual players stepped forward. That was true again in 2017, with Knebel stepping up as one of baseball's best closers, Nelson emerging as a top-of-the-rotation talent and Travis Shaw topping 30 homers and 100 RBIs while providing left-handed balance to the lineup. Manny Pina answered questions about how the Brewers would replace longtime catcher Jonathan Lucroy. And emerging right fielder Domingo Santana combined with Shaw and Thames in the first Brewers trio with 30-plus home runs apiece since Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie and Gorman Thomas in 1982.

Arcia's terrific play ends game

But the flashiest breakthroughs belonged to two top prospects, shortstop Orlando Arcia and long-haired left-hander Josh Hader. Hader was called up in June and used sparingly at first, but evolved into a bullpen weapon in the mold of Andrew Miller, so valuable that the Brewers may have to reassess their original plan to restore him to a starting role.

Arcia showed a flair for the dramatic, with the Brewers' only inside-the-park home run of the season, a series of dazzling defensive plays and one memorable scoop of a fan's ice cream while boosting his offensive numbers across the board. His biggest impact was in the field, where his skills and instinct were most evident on June 21, when Arcia ranged to the other side of second base to make a spinning throw to first for a game-ending out against the Pirates.

"I think it was just instinct," Arcia said through translator Carlos Brizuela. "Instinct came out, and I went for it."

Arcia cools off with ice cream

5. Cubs close the door
It became a running joke between Counsell and the reporters covering the team that he continued facing questions in September about "big series." The Brewers' two biggest were arguably against the Cubs, the team they were chasing in the NL Central. A three-game Brewers sweep at Wrigley Field from Sept. 8-10 lifted Milwaukee back into NL Wild Card contention and gave them some hope for the division, though the Cubs dashed those chances by taking three of four games during a charged rematch at Miller Park from Sept. 21-24. The first four games went to 10 innings and were packed with pivotal moments, including a double comeback against lights-out Cubs closer Wade Davis on Sept. 23, featuring Arcia's tying home run with two outs in the ninth inning and Shaw's walk-off, two-run shot after the Cubs had reclaimed the lead in the 10th.

Must C: Brewers rally vs. Cubs

"I probably haven't been able to come up with the words for this series," Counsell said that day. "If this hasn't been the best baseball series that you've seen in a long time, then you've seen some pretty good baseball. This is as exciting as it gets."

The Brewers did win three of their next four games following that series, but the damage was done. The Rockies entered the final weekend of the regular season two games ahead of the Brewers in the NL Wild Card hunt with three to play, and Milwaukee was eliminated on the penultimate day.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.