Brewers are for real, not an April fluke, thanks to pitching

Yovani Gallardo and the other Brewers pitchers have led Milwaukee to the best record in baseball.

Jeff Roberson/Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — The Milwaukee Brewers are for real.

That’s not to suggest the Brewers will remain this real — as in, maintain their .731 winning percentage and finish 118-44. I can’t guarantee they will make the playoffs. But they are a legitimate contender, not an April fluke.

Entering Tuesday, the Brewers have the best record in the majors, 19-7, along with the largest division lead, 5½ games over the St. Louis Cardinals. The Brewers are poised to become only the sixth team in the wild-card era to have a five-game lead entering May, according to STATS LLC. (Two of the previous five failed to win their divisions — the ’08 Diamondbacks and ’12 Rangers — but let’s not get negative, OK?)

In fact, there’s a sustainable quality to what the Brewers have done. For all the new statistics in baseball, quality innings by starting pitchers remain one of the truest markers of success. The Brewers rotation has thrown the most innings of any in baseball this year (167 2/3) with the third-best ERA (2.74). Really, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

Milwaukee’s most veteran starting pitchers — Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza — have combined for a 2.75 ERA through 16 combined starts. That’s better than their collective career average, but not outrageously so. Gallardo has been an All-Star. Lohse finished seventh in the National League Cy Young Award balloting two years ago. Garza was named MVP of the American League Championship Series as a young starter in Tampa Bay. They’re supposed to perform well, even if a certain amount of statistical regression is to be expected.

AROUND THE HORN

The greatest change has come in the fourth and fifth spots, with right-handers Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada. At the start of his second full season in the majors, it appears Peralta, 24, has made one of the most important adjustments for any young pitcher: He’s walking fewer hitters — 2.0 per nine innings, down from 3.6 last year. "Wily’s got a great arm," Gallardo said. "He’s just getting that experience now."

Estrada, meanwhile, might be the best No. 5 starter in baseball. He’s 30 years old and relatively established in the role, with a 3.75 ERA in 266 1/3 innings during the previous two seasons. This year, Estrada ranks first in the rotation — and 10th in the NL — with a 0.957 WHIP, thanks in part to a changeup that has been effective against right-handed batters.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming when general manager Doug Melvin signed Garza to replace last year’s fifth-starter consortium, effectively bumping Peralta and Estrada into the roles in which they’re currently thriving.

"With the five guys we have in the rotation, we have the opportunity to win every day," said Gallardo, who probably couldn’€™t have made the same statement one year ago. "We know how to execute pitches. When we’re in a jam, guys don’t get rattled. They know what to do.

"Adding Garza this offseason was a huge improvement for us. We were pretty excited going into spring training. It’s a really tight group of guys. We look out for each other. We’re a little tough on each other sometimes, but it’s for the good reasons. It’s going to make us that much stronger."

The bullpen has been exceptional, led by a man who is quietly on pace to be one of the best closers ever. Francisco Rodriguez is now 12 for 12 in save opportunities and has yet to allow a run; he recently passed Robb Nen for the major-league record in saves by a pitcher through his age-32 season.

Provided he remains healthy, K-Rod could have one of the longest relief-pitching careers in baseball history. This is already his 13th season, if we include the five-game cameo in 2002 that preceded his epic run that postseason for the world champion Angels. "I was a sophomore in high school then," quipped Jonathan Lucroy, now Rodriguez’s catcher in Milwaukee.

Lucroy is poised to earn his first All-Star Game selection this year, hitting in a lineup that — even with the emergence of Carlos Gomez and steadiness of Aramis Ramirez — still revolves, to a certain extent, around Ryan Braun. Braun hasn’t played for a couple days because of an oblique injury, but a .952 OPS seems to have answered questions about whether he would struggle initially after last year’s Biogenesis suspension.

An MVP-caliber season for Braun would be awkward, but not surprising. If he clubs big home runs at Miller Park this October, the cheers from Milwaukee fans will reflect no judgments about his past transgressions or self-absorption. Alex Rodriguez was similarly lauded as a hero at Yankee Stadium in the autumn of 2009, months after his initial PED revelations.

That was the year, of course, when an improved pitching staff and vilified slugger carried the Yankees to a world title. While April can deceive, don’t be surprised if Bud Selig’s hometown team follows the same script — in his final year as commissioner.