Surprise! Brewers on the Rise
Their opening-day starting pitcher was injured in the third inning and missed seven weeks. Their biggest name played only 33 games in the first half of the season. A rising star of 2016 missed much of June and has struggled otherwise. Another member of the rotation pitched himself into the bullpen, and the expected closer pitched himself off the roster.
Does this sound like a first-place baseball team—especially if the team was already in rebuilding mode? But as the Brewers approach the All-Star break, they’re right in the National League Central race with the not-so invincible Cubs.
Can the stunning story last? The Fairly Detached Observers talked it over just after the season’s halfway point.
Frank: As we meet the Brewers are 43-39 thanks to an exciting comeback win over Miami on the last day of June.
Artie: And two games up on the alleged super team to our south. Nobody saw this coming!
F: No predictions I know of ventured above .500. But as we speak, the Brewers are on pace for 85 wins; 12 more than last year.
A: And good for a post-season spot, the way the division is going.
F: The Cubs’ many woes are shocking, but the Brewers have produced plenty of surprises on their own.
A: Guys stepping up to challenges all over.
F: Like Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson stabilizing the rotation while Junior Guerra was hurt and Wily Peralta flopped. And Corey Knebel stabilizing the closer spot when everyone got tired of Neftali Feliz giving up homers.
A: Eric Sogard, summoned from the minors, reminding Jonathan Villar how an offensive sparkplug performs. And lots of guys compensating for Ryan Braun and his aching calf.
F: And Travis Shaw, a winter arrival from Boston, putting up the most consistent numbers among Milwaukee’s many home-run hitters.
A: What a steal, getting Shaw and three prospects for Tyler Thornburg, who’s got big-time shoulder trouble now.
F: That and other moves have David Stearns looking like a bona fide “boy genius” general manager. He said goodbye to a 41-homer guy, Chris Carter, and signed the more versatile Eric Thames from the Korean league. And Thames carried the team in April, although he’s cooled off.
A: But Stearns also grabbed Jesus Aguilar from Cleveland off waivers, and he’s come on strong after a slow start. Stearns is getting a national rep for finding solid players.
F: Like Sogard and another refugee from Oakland, catcher Stephen Vogt, whose two homers Friday night provided the 3-2 margin over Miami.
A: Imagine that, all the Crew’s runs scoring via the long ball.
F: You jest, of course. Major League Baseball has become a big-swing, all-or-nothing game, and nobody does the extremes of whaling and whiffing better than the Brewers.
A: An all-time strikeout record last year, and they’re on pace to break it. But also plenty of big blasts.
F: The team’s offensive statistics—pitching too, for that matter—generally match last year’s in terms of the rankings in the NL. They’re batting a few points higher and on-base percentage is almost identical, though the slugging percentage is up about 40 points.
A: They’ll keep striking out a ton and hitting tons of homers. MLB is en route to records in both departments.
F: Alas, this slugging game is also a slogging game. As Tom Verducci reported in Sports Illustrated, things have slowed so much that there’s almost two hours of “dead minutes” per game—just between pitches. Bring on the pitch clock!
A: But if we can stay awake, the Crew is giving us some thrills. And they seem to be ahead of the rebuilding pace the Astros and Cubs followed, which included 100-loss seasons.
F: Now the key question is whether the Brewers can sustain this climb. A lot rides on the 11 games left with the Cubs, starting with the Thursday, July 6, makeup of May’s “rainless rainout.” That precedes a weekend at Yankee Stadium, where I’ll be Saturday.
A: Rooting for the wrong team.
A: You might see double-digit dingers the way both clubs are slugging. After the break the Crew has a real opportunity, ain’a?
F: Ten games against Philly, Pittsburgh and Philly again. Might build a nice cushion going into their first games with Washington; then three with the Cubs.
A: There are always new challenges, though. Now Anderson is out for several weeks with an “oblique” muscle strain. And if Shaw went down for a while, or Sogard, or Nelson, it could really hurt.
F: But if Braun stays healthy they’ll have even more firepower.
A: One good sign is that the team hasn’t been swept in any series over two games.
F: In the first half they had one three-game losing streak and one five-gamer, more than balanced by three “W-3s” and three “W-4s.” So they’re less mercurial than you’d expect for a team with lots of youngsters, lots of new faces...
A: And lots of unexpected adjustments.
F: The high point has been seven games over .500 in May (25-18). Since then, they’ve been bobbing up and down.
A: But so have the Cubs—and the Cardinals! It’s been mighty enjoyable.
F: If it stays that way, we’ll see something else that was unexpected: Discussion about whether to go “all in” on this season even if it means easing back on developing the youngsters who are the future.
A: No one will “blow up” the long-term strategy. But you know the Cubs and Cardinals will make moves if they think it’ll get them to the playoffs.
F: And who knows when the next chance to dance in October will be?
A: Especially for a franchise that’s danced only four times in almost five decades.
Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek knows all about strikeouts.