Braun, Prince prepare for their playoff close-up
Dynamic duo looks to strike fear in second postseason together
MILWAUKEE -- When Brewers veteran Craig Counsell looks at Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder and ponders their postseason possibilities, he cannot help but think back to another right-left tandem.It might surprise you. "My comparison -- and it's different, but I think it's also similar -- is [Curt] Schilling and [Randy] Johnson in Arizona," Counsell said. "They were a little farther down the road -- Johnson had pretty much established himself as a Hall of Famer. "But they were at the top of what they were doing, two of the top starting pitchers in the game. These guys here are two of the best hitters in the game." And they have a chance, Counsell said, to do what Schilling and Johnson did in 2001, when they pitched the D-backs to an epic World Series win over the Yankees in one of the most memorable postseasons in history: Make the leap from productive, well-respected players to October legends. Is this the year? "That postseason changed things for [Schilling and Johnson], for sure, the way they were looked at," Counsell said. "They were absolutely dominant. So many people see it when you're in October." Braun and Fielder have been slugging alongside each other in the regular season for five years now, but have only one postseason stint to their credit. Braun batted .313 in the four-game 2008 National League Division Series against the eventual World Series champion Phillies, with two doubles and two RBIs. Fielder was nearly neutralized by Phillies pitchers, batting .071 (1-for-14) in those four games, the lone hit a solo home run in the seventh inning of Game 4 with the Brewers in a 5-0 hole. In the much larger regular-season picture, Braun and Fielder have been a force during their five years together. "Over the years, we've become closer, and we understand the success both of us have had together is really special," Fielder told MLB.com last month for a statistical analysis of the duo's place in Major League history. "We're in some pretty good company with the things we've done together. Some Hall of Famers, I think."
For that story, we turned to MLB Productions senior researcher Roger Schlueter: Braun and Fielder have homered in the same game 35 times over their five years together, including Friday against the Reds, most of any Major League teammates in that span. The all-time mark for teammates homering in the same game is 75 by the Braves' Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, who were in Milwaukee for all but one of their 13 seasons together. Through their first five years together (1954-58), Mathews and Aaron had homered in the same game 31 times -- four fewer than the current Milwaukee mashers. Since 2007, Braun and Fielder had combined for 355 home runs, most of any teammates in the Majors by far. The Phillies' Ryan Howard and Chase Utley were next over that span with 316. Only Howard has more home runs since 2007 than Fielder's 196. Both players are on track to finish with an adjusted OPS of more than 130 for the fifth straight season. The stat, denoted as OPS+, adjusts on-base plus slugging percentage for league averages and ballpark factors. Anything over 100 is above average; Braun entered Monday at 168 and Fielder at 160. That puts them in special company, according to Schlueter. Since 1901, only eight sets of teammates have made at least 450 plate appearances and posted an OPS+ of 130 or better in five consecutive seasons. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig own the record with nine such seasons from 1926-34. The most recent pair to do it was the Cardinals' Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds from 2001-05. "I don't know what else the two of them need to do to be considered on the same level as some of the No. 3-4 hitters you always hear about," said third baseman Casey McGehee, who for the past three seasons has mostly batted behind Braun and Fielder in the Brewers' five-hole. "You look at what they've done individually, and it's tremendous. Then you start adding up what they've done together going back over the years, and it's tremendous. The names you have to compare them to, it's pretty amazing." McGehee is among the fans of Braun and Fielder who love the duo for its differences. Braun is the single man, the businessman, a sculpted right-handed hitter born in Los Angeles who has been challenging in recent weeks for the National League batting title. Fielder married young and has two young sons running around Miller Park most days; he's a big-boned left-handed hitter born in Orlando, Fla., who has raw power matched by very few hitters in the game. But the general scouting reports -- Braun as the more complete hitter and Fielder as the power hitter -- are incomplete, McGehee said. "If you really watch Braun in [batting practice], he has ridiculous power. It's just overshadowed a little bit by Prince," McGehee said. "And if you really look at Prince, he's a real good hitter. You take the power away from him, and he's still a really good hitter. He may not run as good as Brauny, but he's a very good baserunner. It's funny how one forces the other into a category. "At the end of it, they definitely respect what the other one does. They understand how they've helped each other get to where they are. Not that one of them standing alone is not a tremendous player, but there is no doubt that Braun benefits from Prince standing on deck behind him, and no doubt that Prince benefits from Braun being out there on base. It's a great mix." It's actually similar to another terrific No. 3-4 hitting combination in Brewers history. In 1982, the last time the Brewers won the division, three-hole hitter Cecil Cooper played with a cold intensity, and cleanup man Gorman Thomas batted and played center field with his hair on fire. But it worked. That team, with Paul Molitor mostly hitting leadoff and Robin Yount in the two-hole, led the Majors in runs, home runs (by far, with 30 more homers than the runner-up Angels), slugging percentage and OPS. Count Thomas, a regular at Miller Park these days, as a fan of the current duo. "They're two different players, but I think it's just terrific the way they've brought attention to the franchise, the state," Thomas said. "There are no minuses to either of them. I've always said that if someone is going to win the Triple Crown, it's Ryan Braun. And Fielder is a better hitter than I ever was. I was told, 'Don't worry about hitting for average. Your job is to play center field and get the runner in from third base. Don't think about anything else.' "Fielder and Braun, those guys are great. As far as a No. 3-4 combo, where are you going to find one better than that?" Well-traveled utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. doesn't think you will. "They're as good as anybody," Hairston said. "I hope they don't cancel each other out for MVP, because one of them should be it."