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The Longest First Place Runs in Brewers History

Jul. 24, 2017
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The Milwaukee Brewers dugout during their 2014 first place run - Jim Bauer (Flickr CC)

If the Milwaukee Brewers look in their rear view mirrors this morning and can no longer see the Chicago Cubs, it’s because their rivals have pulled up beside them. With a win over the Cardinals on Sunday night the Cubs have officially erased what was once a 5.5 game lead for the Brewers in the National League Central division and the two teams now stand on equal footing for the stretch run.

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All told, the Brewers have spent 67 days alone or tied for first place during the 2017 season. They reached that peak for the first time for a single day on May 1 before getting back on May 17 and holding on to it for all but two days since. This morning they had company at the top for the first time since June 6, when they were also tied with the Cubs.

While winning seasons and playoff appearances have been relatively few and far between across Brewers franchise history, it’s not unusual for the team to make an appearance in first place at some point during the year. They’ve finished at least one day atop the standings in 38 of their 49 seasons. Even the 2002 team had a brief moment in the sun: A win on Opening Day earned them a share of first place for two whole days before reality set in and they started on the path to a 56-106 season.

With 67 days in first, however, the 2017 Brewers are already in rare company. That’s almost as many as the 1981, 1987, 1992 and 2008 teams had combined (68, including none from a 1992 team that won 92 games). There are only four teams in franchise history that have been in first place longer than the 2017 team:

1982: 89 days

By now most Brewers fans likely know the fable of the 1982 team, which started 23-24, fired manager Buck Rodgers and eventually got hot under Harvey Kuenn, going 72-43 down the stretch on their way to the first, and to-date only, World Series appearance in franchise history. Because of that slow start, the Brewers were in fourth place as late as June 16 (at 31-29) before reaching the top of the American League East for the first time on July 3 and claiming that post for good on July 31.

This Brewers team’s largest lead came on August 27, when they were 6.5 games up on Boston and seven up on Baltimore with  36 games to play. The Orioles eventually passed the Red Sox and erased that gap to force a winner-take-all game on the season’s final day.

2011: 100 days

Like the 1982 team, the 2011 Brewers also stumbled out of the gate a bit. They opened the season without the services of major offseason acquisition Zack Greinke and found themselves in fifth place in the National League Central at 13-19 on May 6, although they did spend three days in first place in April. A little more than a month later, however, they swept the Cardinals at home and found themselves back atop the division on June 12. After an extended three-way struggle with the Cardinals and Pirates, they held first place by themselves from July 27 through the end of the season.

Even with a big lead, this Brewers team found a way to make things interesting: They were up 10.5 games on September 5 when the Cardinals got hot and closed the gap to 4.5 games just 16 days later.

2007: 138 days

The 2007 team won their first two games to get their first glimpse of first place and remained in that picture for a long time, buoyed by a 50 home run season from Prince Fielder, Corey Hart’s best MLB season and the May MLB debut of Ryan Braun. Their 4+ months in first place included a stretch from April 21 to August 16 when they remained atop the standings of a weak division: At the end of that run they were in first despite being just three games above .500 at 62-59. They eventually fell below .500 but made a 13-6 run to get back to a tie for first on September 18 before eventually losing the division to the Cubs by two games.

Back in June this Brewers team led the National League Central by as many as 8.5 games, opening up a big lead on a Cubs team that was five games under .500 at the time. The Cubs eventually won the division with just 85 wins, the third-lowest total to win the NL Central in a full season since the division was formed in 1994.

2014: 159 days

And then there’s the collapse that stands alone. The 2014 Brewers took over first place with a 3-2 record on April 5 and held it all the way through August 31, spanning five months and 130 games on the schedule. Ron Roenicke’s tenure as Brewers manager can be defined by remarkable hot and cold streaks and this season had both: They won 18 of 23 games at one point in April but had a 1-11 skid in June and July and another 2-13 stretch in August and September. They were 19 games over .500 at one point in June but entered the season’s final weekend needing a win just to clinch a winning record.

This Brewers team’s largest NL Central lead was 6.5 games, which they held for the last time on July 1. They were just 31-46 from that point on and eventually finished eight games back of the Cardinals. 

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