ST. LOUIS -- The Brewers were the fun-loving kids.
The Cardinals were the adults who told them to take the game seriously.
The Brewers worried far too much about what the Cardinals said. The Cardinals figured the Brewers would go away when it counted, and for the most part they were right.
Even 2008, the one Brewer playoff season in the last 29 years, included a September fade so ugly that it cost Ned Yost his job.
|Prince Fielder (right) may not be back next year, but why worry? The Brewers are making the most of 2011. (Getty Images)|
Right now, it doesn't feel that way. Right now, it feels like the kids have grown up.
Instead of letting Tony La Russa into their heads, they seem perfectly willing to step back and shower him with praise. Instead of getting caught up in what lights are too bright and which pitches are too tight, they turned their energy where it should be, toward winning games.
They beat the Cardinals again on Tuesday night, 5-3 in 10 innings. They've won three of four from St. Louis over the last two weeks, ignoring the side show as much as possible. They've won seven of 10 from the Cardinals this year, opening up a four-game lead in the National League Central.
Four games with 46 to play isn't much. But the last time the Brewers had this big a division lead this late in a season, Ryan Braun hadn't been born yet.
Braun is 27 now, as is Prince Fielder. They're still fun-loving, but they've learned how to balance it with winning.
"At times [in the past] certain things would get us off the goal," Fielder admitted Tuesday. "Winning's the main goal. That's what they pay us for."
There are other huge differences between previous Brewer teams and this one. Adding Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum totally changed the starting rotation, and it was Marcum who kept the Brewers in the game Tuesday.
Adding manager Ron Roenicke helped, as well. Roenicke projects a sense of calm that you might not expect from a first-year manager. He mentions the distractions -- "There's always something here with these guys," he said Tuesday, referring to the Cardinals -- but he doesn't dwell on them.
"Just go out and play, play our game," he said. "We can't be concerned about what's going on on the other side.. .. What happens on the other side, I don't really care."
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Not much happened on the other side Tuesday. There was no real carry-over from last week's talk of high-and-tight pitches, no evident anger that would hint that this is a heated rivalry.
The Brewers couldn't hold a 3-1 lead, and managed to turn bases loaded, nobody out into no runs. They made some mistakes in the field, as they often do.
But they didn't get down, and they didn't get distracted.
"Game's on the line, they don't panic," Marcum said. "We're having fun, and playing the game the right way."
It's still not the same way the Cardinals play the game.
"To some extent, there's probably differing philosophies, differing personalities," Braun said. "In general, we've had a lot of young guys who have fun playing the game, who are passionate, who are emotional, and show that emotion and act like they're having fun.
"The Cardinals are very business-oriented, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It's just different."
What the Brewers have learned is that they can have their fun without having it get in the way. They've found that they don't need to become the Cardinals, but that they needed to become a better version of themselves.
"The reason this is good for us is that we're now relevant," Braun said. "I mean, the Cardinals are going to be good every year. They have the best player in baseball on their team. If we're not good, this series doesn't matter, and there's not this buzz about it."
It's been said many times that this is a crucial year for the Brewers, with Fielder headed for free agency and almost certainly headed for another team next year.
But just as the Brewers have avoided getting caught up in La Russa's "mind games," they've avoided allowing their season to become one long discussion of Prince's future.
They've played well against the Cardinals, but also against other winning teams. They won their lone series against the Phillies, won a series against the Giants, won a series against the Braves.
"We've been able to go against really good teams and play at that level," Roenicke said.
They've done it without losing their personality, but they don't let their personality get in the way.
"It's experience," said Craig Counsell, who has been on winning teams. "These guys, most of them are at the sweet spot in their career, where experience blends with talent."
It's the spot where the kids sometimes learn how to win.
And the Brewers seem to be there.