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Brewers bring bright stars to big event

Crew brings bright stars to big event

ST. LOUIS -- These are not marginal All-Stars the Brewers have sent to St. Louis. These are three genuine stars of the game, players who have earned respect and admiration. These are two of the best young hitters in baseball, and, on the other end of the career spectrum, the all-time leader in saves.

This is the fourth straight year in which the Brewers have sent at least three players to the Midsummer Classic. That obviously speaks well of the Milwaukee franchise's direction, but at the 2009 All-Star Game on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. CT on FOX, the Brewers contingent will be more about quality than quantity.

Outfielder Ryan Braun and first baseman Prince Fielder have become extremely prominent in a short period of time. Closer Trevor Hoffman was already at the top of his game in a previous century.

Consider Braun for a moment. He led all National League outfielders in fan balloting for the second straight year, and he will become only the second Brewers player to start back-to-back All-Star Games. The other happened to be Hall of Famer Robin Yount, leaving Braun in heady company.

And then on Monday, NL manager Charlie Manuel of the Phillies announced that Braun would be batting cleanup, directly behind the best all-around hitter in the game, Albert Pujols. All-Star prominence doesn't rise much higher than that.

"I'm batting behind Albert?" Braun said with a smile. "Oh, Albert might not get much to hit in this game. That might be trouble. Poor Albert. He's probably not going to see too many pitches to hit, even in the All-Star Game. That's pretty cool that [Manuel] thinks enough of me to put me behind a hitter that good, in the cleanup spot."

Beyond that nice touch of self-deprecation, Braun is fully aware of how much he has accomplished in a short period of time and how much these achievements mean in the game.

"It really is special, it really is meaningful," Braun said. "I always say that I never have an opportunity to reflect on what I'm accomplishing, but being in New York last year for the All-Star Game and being here this year, it really does put in perspective what an amazing accomplishment it is. It's a great feeling to know that I'm being rewarded for all the hard work, the effort, everything I'm putting into this game. It's definitely something I'll never take for granted. It's extremely humbling."

As a final tribute to Braun's versatility, the left fielder will be starting in right field for the NL.

"I've never played right field, but I'm not opposed to it by any means," he said. "I'll be out there [during Monday's workouts] chasing fly balls."

Meanwhile, Fielder has put up the kind of run production numbers this season that would secure a starting spot -- at any other position -- in either league. But at first base in the NL, nobody is going to beat out Pujols, considering both his production and the fact that the All-Star Game is at Busch Stadium. Fielder is fine with this situation, because of his deep admiration for Pujols.

STARTING LINEUPS
AMERICAN LEAGUE
Ichiro Suzuki, rf
Derek Jeter, ss
Joe Mauer, c
Mark Teixeira, 1b
Jason Bay, lf
Josh Hamilton, cf
Evan Longoria, 3b
Aaron Hill, 2b
Roy Halladay, p
NATIONAL LEAGUE
Hanley Ramirez, ss
Chase Utley, 2b
Albert Pujols, 1b
Ryan Braun, rf
Raul Ibanez, lf
David Wright, 3b
Shane Victorino, cf
Yadier Molina, c
Tim Lincecum, p

"This is Albert's place," Fielder said. "I'm not too worried about it. I'm just here to enjoy it. Albert's awesome. I mean, what are you going to do? This guy is unbelievable. And he deserves it. Doing what he's doing is just unbelievable."

What Hoffman has done at one time also would have been unbelievable. But he has created new possibilities and set new standards for closers everywhere with his 574 saves. And now, after 15 seasons in San Diego, he has made the move to Milwaukee and is putting up even better numbers than his career averages. This was no snap transition, but Hoffman made it work.

"It's scary; change is sometimes difficult to handle," Hoffman said. "But the thing that I leaned on was the fact that you can't change the game. You're not going to reinvent it. There are checkpoints throughout that there is going to be familiarity with. You learn to meet new friends and new teammates, get to know them and appreciate them for what they bring to the table and what they're about. It was just a matter of getting through the uncomfortable phase, let's say."

The achievements of these three Brewers may be completely appreciated by a global audience on Tuesday night, but the appreciation for them begins in their baseball home.

"I think they ought to sit back, look at it, and realize that they are among the top players in all of baseball," Brewers manager Ken Macha said. "They should feel good about their accomplishments this year, because their accomplishments have put us where we are right now."

Fielder was an All-Star starter in his other trip, in 2007. Hoffman is a late addition, added to the NL roster as a replacement for injured Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton. Braun and Fielder are second-time All-Stars, but the 41-year-old Hoffman is an All-Star veteran. He's at his seventh All-Star Game, including his third in the past four years.

"It's another notch on his belt," Macha said. "He's meant a lot to our club and where we are right now."

Hoffman did not allow a run until his 19th Brewers appearance, and he went 20-for-22 in save chances in the first half. He's the oldest of this year's NL All-Stars -- only American League knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, 42, is Hoffman's senior -- and Hoffman was reunited in St. Louis with Padres closer Heath Bell. San Diego let Hoffman go unceremoniously over the winter so Bell could take over ninth-inning duties.

Hoffman and starting pitcher Braden Looper were the Brewers' only two notable free-agent acquisitions because the team was mostly set on offense. At the core of that unit is Braun, the three-hole hitter, and Fielder, the cleanup man. They combined for 136 RBIs before the All-Star break, making them baseball's second-most productive duo behind the Cardinals' Pujols and Ryan Ludwick.

Fielder led the way, setting a Brewers record with 78 RBIs before the break, along with a team-best 22 home runs. He was a model of consistency while starting all 88 of Milwaukee's games, going more than two games without an RBI only three times. His longest RBI drought lasted all of four games.

Braun, meanwhile, did his damage in bunches, and he finished the first half in a drought, going 0-for-5 on Sunday, 1-for-14 against his hometown Dodgers and 3-for-25 in the Brewers' final homestand of the first half. Still, he ranked second on the club with 16 home runs, leaving him 13 homers shy of 100 for his career. That's a big number, considering Braun has played a bit more than two full seasons.

"We have two guys who have basically carried us," Brewers outfielder Corey Hart said. "We're right in the hunt, [even though] a bunch of guys aren't doing what they want to do. It could be a lot worse. We're all going to get better offensively. You figure it's got to turn around. We'll put up numbers when we get that consistency going."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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