Who ever thought that, in just one year, the mighty Milwaukee Brewers would be cuddly underdogs? Who suspected that the sweaty, piratical, broad-shouldered Big Blue Brew Crew, the desperados of the last World Series, would transform themselves into plucky overachievers?

Say good-bye to Harvey's Wallbangers. This Brewer team figures to have only one 20-home run man. Heck, they'll probably be outhomered by their opponents. Say hello to the New Brew Crew, a team vastly different and almost as good as its predecessor. Hustle has replaced muscle.

Gone are the most visible Brewers of '82: Gorman Thomas, Rollie Fingers and Pete Vuckovich. That trio--the reigning AL home run champ and the AL's most recent Cy Young winners--cultivated an evil look, played rough and won through crafty intimidation.

Thomas has been traded, and Vuckovich and Fingers are rehabilitating bad arms. Their disappearance is equivalent to the Reds losing Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez, or the Yankees losing Thurman Munson, Sparky Lyle and Catfish Hunter.

"They were well-defined personalities," says Brewer Ted Simmons, "but that doesn't necessarily mean they were the main factor in our success."

The Brewers have altered their outlook and playing style to adjust to their drastically altered personnel. Last season, Milwaukee looked so powerful, scoring the most runs in a generation, that their Series defeat seemed a fluke. Surely, the Brewers would be back to correct the misimpression that they could be beaten. What would they do with Don Sutton around for a season, not a month?

Now the Brewers, a half-game in first place, are one of those inspirational teams over which fans can coo, saying, "How do they do it? With mirrors?"

At one point this spring, seven Brewers were disabled. Next, General Manager Harry Dalton decided that Thomas, 32, had the body of a 40-year-old, with questionable work habits; Dalton traded him before the league got wind of his decreased value. What Dalton got was weak-stick gloveman Rick Manning; only time, and Thomas' heart, will show if the deal was wisdom or panic.

As the Brewers sunk to last place, the miseries never stopped. The core of the Brewers' suspect rotation--Sutton, Mike Caldwell and Bob McClure--has a combined 25-26 record and an ERA over 4.40. When you have to give 27 starts in in the pennant race to Chuck Porter, Tom Candiotti, Bob Gibson, Jerry Augustine and Rick Waits, you're in line for baseball sympathy.

If it weren't for Moose Haas, who has a new curve ball, a new attitude (challenge 'em) and new confidence, Milwaukee would be out of it. Haas has an 11-2 record, a seven-game winning streak and 26 consecutive shutout innings. Haas may be a hold-your-breath sort of ace, but this has been a bad year for easy breathing in Wisconsin.

After all, how here in Brat-and-Beer land can you relax when Robin Yount is at shortstop one day, on the bench the next and at DH the next, nursing back spasms that have kept him from hitting a homer for a month? Oft, the Brewer lineup includes Bill Schroeder at catcher, Edgardo Romero at short and tiny Marshall Edwards in the outfield.

In fact, there is no shortage of chinks in the Brewer armor. Milwaukee, with its infant bullpen of second-year man Pete Ladd (17 wins-plus-saves) and rookies Tom Tellmann (16) and Bob Gibson, has a 30-29 record in one- and two-run games. Few teams have milked a nondescript bullpen as well as Milwaukee.

The Brewers also have trouble intimidating left-handed pitchers (21-22). When Milwaukee faces teams with good southpaws, like Baltimore (1-5) or New York (2-4), they worry about getting swept. At the moment, the Brewers don't have one right-handed home-run threat. Only the magnificent Cecil Cooper (101 RBI in 115 games) projects to a 20-homer year as the Brewers have just 104 homers to their opponents' 102.

Despite all this, the Brewers have a 68-51 record--only two games worse than last year at this time. Milwaukee has been the hottest team in baseball for eight weeks--38-16 since June 24 as it has gone from last to first.

What the public hasn't gathered yet is that the '83 Brewers are more likely to hit-and-run or bunt or slice a double down the line than they are to bludgeon you with bleacher blasts. Bernie Brewer still gets plenty of excuse to slide into the suds and Milwaukee still has the best offense in the league. But it's a different sort of attack.

What the Brewers have is a new lineup chemistry built on line drives and multihit innings. Last week, the first six Brewer regulars all had batting averages over .300. Ben Oglivie's slipped to .288, but Paul Molitor, Yount, Jim Gantner, Simmons and Cooper are all between .301 and .316.

Last season, the Brewers were slightly less than the sum of their offensive parts; now, they're slightly more. Milwaukee has only outscored its foes by 62 runs--less than half last year's margin of superiority. Yet, they endure.

"There are some underpublicized spectacular performances going on here. McClure won eight in a row at one point. Chuck Porter's 5-1 since the All-Star break," says Sutton. "If I'd done my job, where would we be?"

Sutton has succumbed to an ancient syndrome: the hero complex. Manager Harvey Kuenn has let him call his own shots and, when the bullpen was thin in the spring, Sutton let himself pitch too many innings too often. In Texas, Sutton even came back to pitch the sixth and seventh after a two-hour rain delay.

"Hindsight says that was a stupid move on my part. I've been paying for it ever since," says a tired-armed Sutton who, this week, is missing a start for only the sixth time in 18 years.

In the corner of the clubhouse is the Spirit of '82, Vuckovich, the man who sacrificed his arm for a pennant. "They say nobody has ever come back from a torn rotator cuff," says Vuckovich. "Hell, I pitched with one the last two months of last year. It took me all four days between starts just so I could get my arm back above my head again. It was worth it. We got to a World Series."

Now Vuckovich, who pitches batting practice every fifth day and thinks he'll return in September, is largely a cheerleader. He is asked what he sees when he looks at the team that, so recently, was an American League scourge.

Minutes before, Milwaukee had beaten Boston, 4-3, in 14 innings, the winning run coming on a walk, stolen base, sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly. The Brewers totaled 13 hits--all singles.

"We are," said Vuckovich, "a smart, scrappy ballclub."

How times change.

Next: The Toronto Blue Jays