Special Brew: Milwaukee back in thick of NL Central thanks largely to odds and ends

LOS ANGELES – When the Milwaukee Brewers were what must have seemed like hours into a labor of six months, when they’d lost eight of their first 10 games and grinned thinly and assured anyone who needed assuring that this was not who they were,

Carlos Gomez began a 12-game push in which he batted .500 and, at the same time, Jim Henderson saved five games and won another.

As deliciously random as baseball can be, you probably couldn’t do much better than to be rescued in large part by a 27-year-old Dominican who’d spent his young life chasing the expectations put upon him and a 30-year-old Canadian who’d stubbornly resisted evidence that he’d become a career minor leaguer. From the extremes of a system that will coddle talent and prospect status until the last man no longer believes, that will reject a late-round, late-bloomer because no one else believes, Gomez and Henderson share a locker room, and therefore a purpose.

“I know him a little bit,” Henderson said of Gomez. “I’m getting to know him better.”

Gomez was the uber-prospect, once the next thing for the New York Mets, once traded from the Mets to the Minnesota Twins in a splurge for Johan Santana, once traded from the Twins to the Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy. Built strong and fast, Gomez had most of five tools, yet they were unruly. He was a young man running downhill faster than his legs would carry him, driven to go harder and angrier because he wanted it so badly, because when he was homesick for his family in Santiago, he’d once looked into the mirror and demanded of himself, “You’re better than that. This is the future for your family.”

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His father, Carlos Gomez Sr., made a living as a deliveryman, ferrying bank documents through the thrill-a-minute streets of Santiago on a motorcycle. He was, however, at heart a ballplayer who’d show up at every big tryout in town, carrying his glove and dreams, only to be told again and again he was too small. Young Carlos recalls his father telling him he’d been determined to marry a strong, sturdy woman, so that his children would never be turned away because of their stature. They’d be ballplayers, and so Carlos was, today at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds.

He’s still, of course, running downhill. It’s the way he plays, the way he wanted to when he reached the big leagues at 21, the way the Brewers approve of him playing, and over 12 games in which the Brewers won 10 and earned their way back into this season, Gomez was 20 for 40 with three home runs, five RBI, two stolen bases and 11 runs. In a 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday – a game that would be remembered for Clayton Kershaw’s 12 strikeouts over eight innings – Gomez twice hit the ball well to right field and once doubled off the wall in center field. He’s batting .338, still playing some of the best center field in the game and forever unwilling to be told who he is or who he was supposed to be.

“I know myself,” he said. “I know I can be one of the good players in this game. The tools are there. I hit for power. I get the opportunity. That makes me feel like I’m the player everybody thought I’d be before. Now I recognize what kind of player I am.”

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Ultimately, it was left to him, to the young man for whom coaches and scouts were forever rolling back on their heels and saying, man, if that kid ever gets it. Maybe he has and maybe he hasn’t (the Brewers believed enough to extend his contract by $24 million over three seasons), but for two weeks he was all that and more, when the Brewers needed offense and, even more than that, needed relief.

Near the bottom of an industry that pulls in more than $7 billion a year, that traffics in projecting 17-year-olds into stars and busts and all that lies between, that spawns dreams and snuffs them out a thousand times a day, Jim Henderson, a year ago, was forced to consider the worst. He was 29, going on unwanted. Drafted in the 26th round nearly a decade before (in the second-to-last draft by the then-Montreal Expos), he was given a Double-A road trip to see how that went, to see how he pitched, to see if there’d be room for him on the roster.

On Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, before more than 50,000 people, he pitched a scoreless ninth inning against the Dodgers, preserving a 6-4 win, extending the good times for the Brewers, extending their April relevance. A couple weeks before, with a fragile bullpen in trouble again, Henderson had taken over the ninth inning. His precision – along with his big fastball – settled the late innings. The Brewers were getting leads and then holding them and then getting the ball to Henderson, whose big-league debut came nine months earlier after more than 300 minor-league appearances.

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From thoughts that he’d been left behind, after years of watching younger men arrive eager in clubhouses and then leave breathless for the majors, he was the breathless one.

“You’re just a roster-filler, basically,” he said of his final minor-league seasons.

Then he wasn’t. He simplified his mechanics, which maybe is not so simple at 6-foot-5. He threw harder. He hit the strike zone. He’d never been a prospect like Gomez. He didn’t come from a baseball family. His father, Neil, was a wonderful man, the head mechanic at the University of Calgary, a hard worker until Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) took him away, just as it had his father. He was not a baseball guy.

So Jim kept showing up, kept pitching, kept listening to the encouragement from his buddies at the Okotoks Dawgs Baseball Academy outside Calgary and kept taking it to heart. Not all the paths take the direct route.

“Some guys have it easier than others,” Henderson said. “But, like Carlos, he had to grind himself. I can look at it and appreciate that kind of thing. … It’s just rising to the occasion when the time’s right.”

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Henderson has been near perfect in 11 appearances. From thoughts the game might be done with him long before he was done with it, the story of too many to count before him, he put one foot in front of the other, threw another pitch, and on a Sunday morning in Los Angeles found himself in a clubhouse with 24 other guys just like him, and not like him at all.

“It’s still a little bit surreal,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine. Now the game is just fun. Now you’re not playing for yourself anymore. You’re playing for the team. It’s just awesome to play baseball just for the fun of playing it.”

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