Don’t Look Past the Brewers

(published September 22, 2011)

What team has given up the fewest runs since the All-Star break?

Here’s a hint: They also have the best record in the majors in that time, have allowed the fewest baserunners per inning during that stretch, and have the highest OPS since the break among the likely playoff teams in their league.

If your answer is the Phillies, it’s understandable but wrong.  The Phils actually trail this team by one game since July 13, and if the planets align correctly, the two will meet in an epic NLCS that matches strength against strength.

That team is the Milwaukee Brewers, and nobody is going to want to face them once the postseason gets underway.

Like the Phillies, the Brewers send out a top-notch starting pitcher every game.  Milwaukee rolled the dice in the offseason, adding Shawn Marcum and Zack Greinke to join Yovani Gallardo and Randy Wolf in the rotation.

Those gambles have paid off handsomely.  Milwaukee is 8-5 in Marcum’s second-half starts, 10-3 in Greinke’s.  The Brewers have a large home-road split in their season record – 52-23 at Miller Park, 39-42 on the road – but since the All-Star break they’ve been 23-13 in away games, nearly as good as Philadelphia’s 23-10 road mark in that time.

Greinke was expected to become the co-ace of the staff, and he’s responded with a season second only to his Cy Young campaign with Kansas City in 2009.  He leads the majors with an average of 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings.  In the first half, his 5.45 ERA was boosted by an opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABiP) of .349; in the second, the average came down to a more expected .294, and his ERA plunged to 2.29.  In five of his six losses, the Brewers scored zero, one, or two runs; when they score three or more, he’s 14-1.

Gallardo’s record when Milwaukee scores at least three runs is 16-4.  Against Philadelphia, Arizona, and Atlanta, he is 4-1 this year with a 2.38 ERA, and a 33/9 K/BB ratio.

John Axford hasn’t blown a save since April 18, and Francisco Rodriguez has solidified the eighth inning since coming over from the Mets, allowing runs to score in just five of his 27 appearances.

Ryan Braun is contributing a near-MVP season, leading the National League in slugging, OPS, and runs scored, trailing only Matt Kemp in Wins Above Replacement.  Prince Fielder, who has indicated this may be his last year in Milwaukee, is providing his usual outstanding power and on-base numbers.

Corey Hart has hit fifteen of his 25 homers since the All-Star game.  Rickie Weeks is finally back in the lineup after missing 41 games with an injured ankle.  And the centerfield pairing of Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez has provided great defense, and combined with Ryan Braun to give the Brewers what little speed they have on the basepaths (60 steals, 11 caught stealing for the threesome, 29 and 19 for the rest of the team).

The Brewers haven’t clinched a playoff spot yet; their magic number to win the division is three.  And their potential playoff pairings are very much up in the air.

The Diamondbacks can throw a monkey wrench into things by slipping past Milwaukee for the second-best record in the National League.  They trail Milwaukee by a single game, though they have a tougher schedule down the stretch — both teams have a pair of three-game home series left to play; Arizona faces San Francisco and Los Angeles, while the Brewers take on Florida and Pittsburgh.

If Atlanta is the wild card, the Phillies will take on the division winner with the weaker record.  That could be the Brewers, pitting the two best starting staffs against each other in the Divisional Series, a best-of-five crapshoot.

But Atlanta’s lead over St. Louis is down to a game and a half, one game in the loss column.  If the Cardinals are the wild card, they’ll play Philadelphia while Milwaukee takes on Arizona.

Regardless of how it shakes out, the Brewers are the one team in the National League that matches up well with the Phillies’ starters, has a superior bullpen, and is Philadelphia’s equal on offense.  The Phillies may turn their regular-season success into a postseason juggernaut, but the Brewers know this could be their one best shot, and they have all the elements in place to make it to the World Series for the first time since 1982.



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