By MARK KNUDSON     @MarkKnudson41     Special to woodypaige.com 

The Colorado Rockies shot out of the gate, shocking baseball observers who expected more of the same mediocrity from a team that’s historically been relegated to watching the post season from the couch. They’re now in the driver’s seat for a National League play-off spot. Same with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have fashioned a remarkable comeback season after firing most everyone in the front office after at dreadful 2016. Both Rockies skipper Bud Black and D-Backs head man Torey Lovullo have been handed imaginary “NL Manager of the Year” awards at various points as we reach the season’s halfway point.

But neither can be considered the front runner at this moment. The guy who gets the award for the “NL Manager of the First Half Year” as we start the second half is…Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell.

While the NL West gets all the attention for what the top three teams are doing, the NL Central is all about who’s not living up to expectations – the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs. The Cubs have rested at around .500 all season, with everyone expecting them to bust out and take over the division at any moment. Thus far, that moment has not arrived. They start the second half two games under.

What has arrived way ahead of schedule are Counsell’s young Milwaukee Brewers. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Crew. They were going to gain some valuable experience for their young core to get them ready for the future. It was just a question of when they would start selling off established players like Ryan Braun. Not if. 2017 was going to be about stockpiling even more young talent for that bright future. General Manager David Stearns came from the Houston organization two years ago. He brought the highly successful Astros blue print with him. Take your lumps for a couple of years, build through the draft and smart trades, and be ready to bring down the hammer in a few seasons, like they are in H-town.

Suddenly, that season has arrived already in Brew Town.

Milwaukee has won 50 games at the All-Star break, hit 138 homers already, and carries a 5½ game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central into the second half. They haven’t been flashy or streaky, just consistent. They reflect the personality of their manager.

Counsell is a Milwaukee native who’s father, John, worked as the Brewers Community Relations Director during the late 1980’s. Craig was a batboy for the team and often played pre-game catch with Brewers players (including yours truly.) John would always tell anyone who would listen that his son “was going to play for Notre Dame!”…which he did. Craig played for the Fighting Irish before becoming a draft pick of the expansion Colorado Rockies in 1992. He ended up playing 17 years for five different teams and won a pair of World Series titles with Florida (1997) and Arizona (2001). He was the 2001 NLCS MVP. A lot of guys would sacrifice a non-essential body part for that kind of career.

And it ended where it all began for Craig, when he got the chance to play for his hometown team, first joining the Brewers in 2004. After going back to the Diamondbacks for two seasons, he finished his playing career as a Brewer over his final five seasons and then accepted a front office role. After that brief stint, he was promoted to skipper.

Craig’s even keel demeanor makes him the epitome of a player’s manager. While many thought he was too young and inexperienced when he was awarded the Manager’s gig in May of 2015, he’s proven those people wrong, leading the Crew through a tough rebuilding process and now into a pennant race.

Counsell’s message to his young team as the second half begins reflects his unflappable personality. Stay cool. Be yourself. Don’t try to do more than you’ve been doing, because…it’s working.

The Brewers haven’t locked anything up yet. Cubs are far from dead. They just made the season’s first blockbuster trade, bringing in young veteran starting pitcher Jose Quintana for the second half. The Brewers are quite aware of what they’re up against. They’ll follow the lead of their steady handed manager and stay the course. And if they are one of the five teams that qualify for the NL Playoffs this October, Counsell should be the unanimous choice for National League Manager of the Whole Year.