The Milwaukee Brewers had a good night on Tuesday at the All-Star Game in Minneapolis. The three Brewer starters all made good early contributions—Jonathan Lucroy doubled twice, while Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Gomez each made nice plays in the field. But that’s about all that’s gone well for the Brewers in the month of July.
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Milwaukee has gone 2-10 in this month, and their once-comfortable lead in the NL Central is gone. The Brewers have lost 4 ½ games to the Pittsburgh Pirates and 5 ½ apiece to the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. I fully expected this race to tighten—more out of regard for the opposition than concern about the Brewers, but wasn’t expecting it to happen quite so fast.
So is this slide destined to continue, albeit in more moderate degrees, carry the Brewers out of the playoff picture and again ensure the Green Bay Packers have the sports market to themselves in August & September? Or is this just one of the hiccups, albeit a severe one that the Brewers ran into?
Before answering the question, let’s break down, in general terms, how Milwaukee enjoyed their early success and then what’s gone awry in July.
The Brewers have been a team built on power hitting all season. They’re second in the National League in runs scored, while only ranking 10th in ERA. That offense has been driven primarily by the long ball—while Milwaukee does a good job at getting runners on base, they do a great job at hitting the ball out of the park.
The offense is second in slugging percentage because they are second in home runs. A town that remembers fondly the 1982 edition that won the pennant when they were still in the American League can appreciate the formula.
But the formula does invite a sharp slump, especially as the summer grinds on and offenses are known to have a little tailspin. And what the Brewer attack is experiencing is most definitely that.
Four players are batting under .200 for the month. The only player really hitting the ball well is Ryan Braun (.400 on-base percentage/.576 slugging in July) while Gomez and second baseman Scooter Gennett are the only other everyday players who haven’t completely tanked.
If the starting pitching were consistent, Milwaukee could navigate a stretch like this and at least break even, but there have been problems there. Wily Peralta was hit hard two consecutive starts before finally righting the ship on the final Sunday before the break. Kyle Lohse has been spotty. While Yovani Gallardo has mostly pitched well in recent weeks, he got hit hard in this recent stretch.
Nor has the bullpen been immune. Will Smith, one of the best setup men in the game this season, was knocked around in a couple outings and then positively annihilated by Philadelphia when he faced five batters and gave up three hits and two walks, all of whom scored. Smith blew a save and his previously stellar ERA blew up.
Francisco Rodriguez, the closer who also made the All-Star game came into a 6-6 tie against the Cardinals and gave up a home run to Matt Holliday—a hitter whose power struggles this year was the subject of commentary last week on TheSportsNotebook (actually, given the tendency of whatever trend I write about to reverse itself immediately on publication, maybe that home run was my fault and not K-Rod’s).
The only consistent pitcher in this stretch has been Matt Garza. After a slow start, Garza has been steadily locking in since the beginning of June, lowering his ERA from 4.84 to 3.69. He won a 1-0 duel with Homer Bailey in Cincinnati, one of the two Milwaukee wins this month.
That’s the hard data, but saying “everyone has sucked for two weeks” really doesn’t get us closer to understanding the Milwaukee prospects going forward.
I submit that the key figure here is Peralta. The 25-year-old righthander has electric stuff and pitched like it in the early going. If he settles back down, the rest of the rotation falls back into place with him.
Garza and Lohse are both pitchers with big-game resumes. Gallardo has pitched very well in five of his last seven starts. Even with the fifth spot being a train wreck—Marco Estrada has been sentenced to the bullpen, a Peralta revitalization gives the Brewers four arms good enough to steady the ship. It would still be a rotation significantly deeper than Pittsburgh or Cincinnati’s, and a little bit deeper than St. Louis, at least until the Cardinals get Michael Wacha back off the disabled list.
In the bullpen, Smith is the key figure. He combined with K-Rod to completely lock down the final six outs of a game. He was able to settle himself in the final series of the first half against St. Louis, appearing twice and pitching a scoreless inning both times. And Peralta threw a gem on the final Sunday—a game in which the Brewers could have fallen out of first place. I’m optimistic that’s a sign of things to come for both pitchers.
Whether that means Milwaukee wins the NL Central is another question. St. Louis isn’t going anywhere, they were the preseason favorite and even without Yadier Molina, they’re an imposing threat. I would still expect them to somehow end up in first. But the Brewers can still get in the playoffs, they can still win the wild-card game and still keep the local fan base at least keeping one eye on baseball, even after Aaron Rodgers and the beloved Packers take the field.