45 Games in, the Brewers are in First Place: It has Happened Before, but it’s Never Ended Well
Forty-five games into the 2017 season, the Milwaukee Brewers are alone in first place in the NL Central. This is the sixth time in franchise history that the team has held a part of first place at this arbitrary, almost-one-third-of-the-way point in the season. The previous six seasons in which the Brewers were in first at this juncture mostly ended up as forgettable campaigns, but each inspired the same rush of optimism being felt in Brewers Nation right now. How did the Crew end up as 45-game champs in the past and how did they fare the rest of the way? Let’s take a look…
1974: The Brewers were just four years old (and with an 18-year-old starting shortstop) when they finished their first 45 games just percentage points behind the Red Sox for first in the AL East. The Crew was a surprise bunch that year, riding the hot bats of Johnny Briggs and George Scott to a 24-21 record. The Brewers clawed back into lone possession of first a week later, but dropped eight of their next nine to fall out of contention. The team finished at 76-86, 15 games out of first place.
1990: For all the great teams the Brewers fielded in the late ’70s and early ’80s and the 17-1 start of the 1987 team, it was not until 1990 that the Brewers were again in first place after 45 games. Like the ’74 club, the ’90 Brewers started out at 24-21 to top out a sluggish AL East. The team had already cooled off after a 14-6 start. Free agent prize Dave Parker provided the offense (a .338 batting average) and Ted Higuera anchored the rotation (Five wins and a 1.89 ERA) in what would be his last healthy season. The Brewers slipped out of the first after game 47 and would never return. They finished the season with 74 wins, better than only the moribund Yankees in the American League.
2007: The 2007 Brewers were a young bunch on an unexpected tear, running up a 28-17 mark that put them 6.5 games up on the second-place Astros. While J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder, and Rickie Weeks showed the fruits of the revamped farm system, the biggest surprise of the season might have been Tony Gwynn Jr., (.345 batting average with five steals) whose hot bat had forced him into the starting lineup. Third baseman Tony Graffanino was struggling so badly, however, that just days after game 45, the Brewers summoned top prospect Ryan Braun to the Bigs to take over at the hot corner. The eventual Rookie of the Year propelled the Crew to a lead as big as 8.5 games, but the team swooned down the stretch. A four-game winning streak in mid-September put them in a first-place tie with the Cubs with two weeks to play, but they finished the year in second place, two games back.
2009: After losing mega-ace CC Sabathia from a team that had barely made the postseason in 2008, the Brewers opened 2009 with an unexpected swagger. They took over first place after game 45 with a 27-18 mark with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder established as an MVP candidates and Yovani Gallardo taking strides towards replacing Sabathia as staff ace. The Brewers held a piece of first as late as the Fourth of July before being sunk by a genuinely terrible starting rotation. The ’09 squad finished with 80 wins and their 45-game triumph would probably qualify as the high point of the Ken Macha era.
2014: Carlos Gomez was a week removed from being a Sports Illustrated cover boy when the Brewers blew past the 45-game mark (at 27-18) on their way to the best first-half in franchise history. Anchored by slugging leadoff man Gomez, emerging superstar Jonathan Lucroy and up-and-comers Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett, the Brewers also had a pair of aces in Willy Peralta and Kyle Loshe. In what was one of the greatest collapses in team history, the 98-win pace of the first half of the season gave way to a 96-loss pace in the second half (including a brutal 3-16 stretch in late August and early September) and the Crew finished at 82-80, eight games behind the Cardinals.