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August 30, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

A Hot Cup of Brew (Crew)

by Larry Granillo

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On the morning of July 26, the Milwaukee Brewers awoke after a day off to find they had slipped out of first place. The Pirates and Cardinals, with whom they had been tied with the night before, had each won their games while the Brewers sat idle, slipping Milwaukee a half-game behind.

One month later, the Brewers awoke on the morning of August 26, again after a night off, alone in first place. The second-place Cardinals had taken advantage of the Brew Crew’s idleness, beating the Pirates. This moved St. Louis to 9.5 games back of Milwaukee. The Pirates had fallen even further, sitting in fourth place and 16 games back. This drastic change in the structure of the National League Central was due almost entirely to the Brewers' stellar month-long run, in which they went 24-5 in 29 games. That .828 winning percentage was just too much for any team to compete with.

Today, following Milwaukee's three-game sweep of the Cubs at Miller Park over the weekend, the Brewers are 10.5 games ahead of the Cardinals for the biggest division lead in baseball. How, then, did the Brewers change from a .524 team in July to an .800 team in August en route to the second-best record in the NL and one of the most secure playoff spots in baseball? Below are five reasons for Milwaukee's surge in the standings.

Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt. The left side of Milwaukee’s infield did not have a good start to the season. At the start of this hot streak, third baseman McGehee was batting .226 with a .309 slugging percentage. Betancourt was doing only slightly better, batting .252 with a .371 slugging. Yuni's numbers were only that “high” thanks to a hot streak he started at the All-Star break. Between July 9 and August 14, Betancourt played in 30 games, hit four home runs, and batted .357/.373/.536. McGehee, meanwhile, hit three home runs (and two triples!) in the first 21 games of the streak while batting .325/.379/.545. The Brewers had received essentially zero offense from either player through the first four months of the season. When they finally started hitting their stride, the team started winning.

Great Pitching... The Brewers’ biggest off-season moves revamped their starting rotation by adding both Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Since the start of the streak, the Brew Crew’s starters have a 2.61 ERA (and 155 strikeouts) in 32 games played. Marco Estrada has made three spot starts in place of Chris Narveson, who sliced the tip of his pitching thumb with a pair of scissors. Yovani Gallardo has been the ace of the staff lately. In his last six games, he has a 1.71 ERA with 41 strikeouts, six walks, and three home runs allowed in 42 innings pitched. The Brewers are 5-1 in those starts.

...From the 'Pen, Too. Closer John Axford has performed well all year. He recorded his 40th save (and 37th consecutive) this weekend, becoming only the second Brewer to reach that mark. The rest of the bullpen has been shaky at times, though, sometimes due to excessive (or incorrect) usage, while others have been either injured or ineffective. Milwaukee acquired Francisco Rodriguez from the Mets in mid-July to help address these issues. Takashi Saito returned from injury near the All-Star break, essentially giving the Brewers two new arms to work with just as the team's streak was starting. It has worked out well, with the team's five main relievers—Axford, Rodriguez, Saito, LaTroy Hawkins, and Kameron Loe—each working between 10 and 16 innings this past month, with none allowing more than five runs total.

Defense? This, as you may guess, is a bit tough to quantify over such a small timeframe. But there is some circumstantial evidence. For example, the Brewers have allowed only five unearned runs in this 32-game run (while allowing 84 earned runs). There are also the highlight plays, like their triple play against the Dodgers two weeks ago. In fact, one question poised to Brewers announcers during an "E-mail the Booth" segment essentially asked, "What has been more impressive this homestand: the pitching or the defense?" None of this offers much proof to the contention that Milwaukee's defense has stepped up during their hot streak, but it does help show that defense has been a positive factor of late.

These Guys Can Hit. This should be a no-brainer, but it cannot be overlooked. With MVP-caliber offensive seasons from both Ryan Braun (.334/.406/.593, 64 extra-base hits) and Prince Fielder (.295/.409/.546, 29 HR, 87 BB), and a career-year from Nyjer Morgan (.305/.346/.426), the Brewers’ offense is always in the thick of things. Corey Hart continues to earn his money with the lumber; he’s batting .283/.359/.499 with 21 homers. Since July 26, the team as a whole has batted .280/.340/.433 with 32 home runs and 57 doubles in 32 games (for the season, they’re batting .261/.323/.433). They have scored 4.9 runs per game while averaging 9.4 hits and 2.9 walks per game. It's tough to lose when you're scoring that many runs every day (especially when you're also giving up only 2.8 runs per game).

 The Brewers have played well without their third-best offensive player—Rickie Weeks, who injured himself on July 27—and their best defensive replacement—Carlos Gomez, who broke his collarbone before the streak began. An .800 win percentage is unsustainable, but with the return of Weeks and Gomez on the horizon, all Milwaukee needs is a little help from their superstars to have a shot at a 95- or 100-win season.   

Related Content:  The Streak,  Milwaukee Brewers,  Brewers

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