Brew­ers won’t go away, and nei­ther will doubters

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Bob Night­en­gale bnighten@us­ato­ USA TO­DAY Sports FOL­LOW COLUM­NIST BOB NIGHT­EN­GALE @BNight­en­gale for baseball anal­y­sis and break­ing news.

They see the skep­ti­cism. They lis­ten to the doubters. They read the lat­est pro­jec­tions.

The Milwaukee Brew­ers are in first place in the Na­tional League Cen­tral, where they have been sit­ting for more than a month, and yet it seems ev­ery­one is wait­ing for the col­lapse.

Why, af­ter los­ing backto-back games to the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates on Mon­day and Tues­day, FanGraphs was giv­ing them a 3.7% chance to win the divi­sion and a 6.5% to reach the play­offs.

Maybe the col­lapse in 2014 is too fresh in ev­ery­one’s mind. It was the year the Brew­ers led the divi­sion right up to Septem­ber, only to lose 22 of their fi­nal 31 games and fin­ish eight games be­hind the St. Louis Car­di­nals and com­pletely out of the play­offs.

Now, three years later, the Brew­ers are the first­place team no one wants to be­lieve in.

“A lot of peo­ple thought that we’d be in first place for like a week,” says first base­man Eric Thames, who leads the team with 20 home runs, “and then we’d fall off and just kind of be like the team last year. But it’s a whole new team. Guys feel the con­fi­dence. We feel the mojo.”

Still, the Brew­ers have been lead­ing a divi­sion that’s the worst in baseball, with no team within even seven games of the sec­ond wild-card spot.

Ev­ery­one keeps wait­ing for the Chicago Cubs to wake up. Af­ter they won two of three from the San Diego Padres this week at Wrigley Field, there’s a sense the Cubs will take off and leave ev­ery­one in their fumes.

But the longer the Cubs let the Brew­ers hang around the pent­house level, the more the Brew­ers be­lieve they can ex­tend their lease. Cer­tainly, they should hang around for at least another month, con­sid­er­ing from now un­til July 25 they have four games against teams that en­tered Wed­nes­day with win­ning records.

“I felt like what set us apart from ev­ery­body in the divi­sion is that we had noth­ing to lose,” Thames says. “We weren’t play­ing up to any­body’s ex­pec­ta­tions. We were go­ing to play hard and just see where we end up.

“Then, a month ago, we looked at the stand­ings, and it was like, ‘Wait, we’re in first place now?’ Ever since then, the con­fi­dence started com­ing out. It was like, ‘Hey, we’re a first-place team. We can do this.’ It’s crazy. We ex­pect to win now, and we’re pretty pissed off when we don’t.”

The most sur­real as­pect of the Brew­ers’ suc­cess is that they’re do­ing it with­out Ryan Braun. Braun, the 2011 NL MVP who has av­er­aged 28 homers and 88 RBI over the last two sea­sons, is on the dis­abled list be­cause of a strained left calf. He has 16 at-bats since the start of May.

They’ve sur­vived a three­week slump by Thames, who went 15 games and 63 plate ap­pear­ances with­out a homer. It ended the earl­y­sea­son flurry of re­porters sur­round­ing him be­fore games and drug testers fol­low­ing him to the bath­room af­ter games.

“I kind of missed those guys,” says Thames, who has been drug tested seven times this sea­son, but only once in the last month, in his first year back from star­ring in South Korea. “Every time I home­red, it seemed they were there wait­ing for me. I stopped hit­ting, and those guys dis­ap­peared. Now, maybe they’ll start com­ing around again.”

The Brew­ers’ stay­ing power is a credit to gen­eral man­ager David Stearns, whose slew of moves jump­started their re­build­ing process. He sent re­liever Tyler Thorn­burg to the Bos­ton Red Sox for third base­man Travis Shaw and three prospects. It turned out to be per­haps the most lop­sided trade of the win­ter. While Thorn­burg just had sea­son-end­ing shoul­der surgery, Shaw is per­form­ing like an All-Star. He en­tered Wed­nes­day with a .295 bat­ting av­er­age, 13 homers, 48 RBI and a .887 on-base plus slug­ging per­cent­age and had gone 41 con­sec­u­tive games with­out com­mit­ting an er­ror.

The Brew­ers picked up slug­ger Je­sus Aguilar off waivers from the Cleve­land In­di­ans, and he was hit­ting .329 over his last 33 games. Eric Sog­ard, who hadn’t played in the big leagues since 2015, had a slash line ( bat­ting av­er­age/on-base per­cent­age/slug­ging per­cent­age) of .356./.464/.538 as the lead­off hit­ter. Catcher Manny Pina, the player to be named in the Fran­cisco Ro­driguez trade, was hit­ting .295 with a .799 OPS and lead­ing the ma­jor leagues with five pick­offs.

And, of course, there’s Thames, who they signed to a three-year, $16 mil­lion con­tract in De­cem­ber, with his 20 homers, 38 RBI and a .970 OPS.

“We came into the sea­son with the un­der­stand­ing that we have a young team,” Stearns says. “And young teams can sur­prise.

“We knew we had a young tal­ented group of po­si­tion play­ers ready to learn to­gether and ma­ture to­gether, so we were not go­ing to put any lim­its on any player or our team.”

So while owner Mark At­tana­sio’s hol­i­day re­frain in his open let­ter to sea­son tick­ethold­ers was pa­tience, Stearns never once ut­tered that word, de­spite hav­ing only a $62.8 mil­lion pay­roll with $24 mil­lion on the books for next sea­son.

“I have never used the term ‘re­build­ing,’ ” Stearns says. “I know that’s the la­bel placed on us, but we don’t pay too much at­ten­tion to that. From my per­spec­tive, our front of­fice and the guys in the club­house, we have avoided think­ing about that. We want to ac­cu­mu­late as much young tal­ent as we can, al­low that young tal­ent to grow to­gether and be pa­tient with it.”

The ro­ta­tion has been the back­bone of the suc­cess, and closer Corey Knebel led all reliev­ers with 63 strike­outs. He had struck out at least one bat­ter in his first 36 ap­pear­ances, one shy of equal­ing the mod­ern record.

And, oh, yes, can they hit. They have hit 100 home runs quicker than any team in fran­chise history and have scored a fran­chis­ere­cord 17 con­sec­u­tive runs via the homer un­til Tues­day night.

“We’re a com­plete team, and we’re for real,” Braun says. “If you’re in first place af­ter 2½ months of a sea­son, it’s no fluke.”

The Brew­ers, who have spent the last two years re­build­ing their farm sys­tem, could face an in­trigu­ing dilemma at the July 31 trade dead­line.

Do they stand pat, trade away prized prospects for a front-line starter or dare trade away a vet­eran or two to keep the mi­nor league pipe­line flow­ing?

“We have to bal­ance the near- and long-term fu­ture,” Stearns says. “I think we have to keep that bal­ance to be con­sis­tently com­pet­i­tive. I don’t re­ally see any change in that just be­cause where we sit in the stand­ings.”

In other words, the Brew­ers have no in­ten­tion of trad­ing the likes of Thames, Shaw or even Braun, no mat­ter how tempt­ing the pack­age.

And they’re not about to mort­gage the fu­ture by go­ing all-in this sea­son. They will, how­ever, share the spot­light.

Thames is happy to cede much of it.

“That made me so un­com­fort­able,” he says. “Now, ev­ery­thing is all about the team, the Milwaukee Brew­ers, the first­place Milwaukee Brew­ers. It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.”


“It’s a whole new team. Guys feel the con­fi­dence. We feel the mojo,” says Brew­ers slug­ger Eric Thames, who lost his shirt while cel­e­brat­ing a walk-off home run last week with team­mates.

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