MINNEAPOLIS — On May 22, the Brewers were 17-26 with a .395 winning percentage. It was the low point of their season so far, and the injury-stricken team was stuck in fifth place in the National League Central.
Yet the Brewers still had 48 home runs, the eighth-most of any team in the majors. Power could only get them so far.
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Since then, the Brewers have averaged 1.39 home runs per game, a marked improvement on the 1.12 per game they’d averaged until May 22. They’ve also gone 13-10, pushing themselves to fourth in their division.
That improvement isn’t great, but it’s better, and in Minneapolis this weekend, the Brewers’ fate was largely determined by home runs. Twelve of their 15 runs were scored on balls hit out of the park, seven in total. On Friday and Saturday, that strategy worked, yielding 5-4 and 6-2 wins. On Sunday, though, Corey Hart’s three-run home run wasn’t enough to power the Brewers through 15 innings, which ended in a 5-4 loss on a Denard Span walk-off single.
“We had a lot of base runners,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “We had a lot of opportunities to drive in runs. Their defense took away some runs from us, Span with a great catch, Revere two great catches. We did a lot of things well. It didn’t turn out with a win.”
The base runners were there, but no one could drive them in. With 15 hits, the Brewers left 17 men on base. Everything was working, really, except for those clutch hits (or home runs) to get runners across the plate.
“Probably the toughest part is I feel like our whole team played a really good game today,” starter Zack Greinke said. “Our pen did good. I did okay starting. Defense was good. (We) had some good at-bats.”
The hitting, even the failed attempts at small ball, was at least encouraging. The Brewers’ power numbers are perhaps most striking when compared to where the team stands among the best-hitting squads in the league. Going into Sunday, it was tied for 24th in the league, a full 130 hits behind the Rangers, who have the most in the majors. A full 14.8 percent of the Brewers’ hits have been out of the park, but home runs aren’t necessarily the key to wins.
Of the seven teams with more home runs than the Brewers this season, only one, the Rockies, has a losing record. However, in 2011, three of the eight teams with the most home runs in the majors didn’t have winning records. Even when home runs were king in 1998, neither the Cardinals nor the Mariners (Mark McGwire’s and Ken Griffey Jr.’s teams, respectively) had a winning record.
So the Brewers’ power isn’t a key to winning, at least not at their early-season pace. As the past three weeks have shown, it’s going to take some of the best power numbers in the league to boost the team above .500 if it’s going to continue to rely on the long ball as the source of so much of its offense.
“When we have the great pitching and we keep the run total down, then the home runs definitely come into play,” Roenicke said. “I know I would like to hit them with two and three people on base, but the solos sometimes win you some close games. We certainly could have used one there in the last six innings.”
What’s most heartening about the team’s power is how well it has compensated without Prince Fielder, who hit 38 home runs last season. In 2011, the Brewers averaged 1.14 home runs per game, a significant difference from the 1.21 per game they’ve averaged this year. Both Ryan Braun and Hart have upped their home run production, a dual compensation for losing Fielder.
Braun, who has 19 home runs this year, is averaging a home run every 3.26 games, compared to every 4.55 last year. Hart’s 14 home runs have put him on a pace to hit one every 4.57 games, an improvement from one every 5.0 games in 2011. Braun’s 19 home runs tie him with Carlos Beltran and Jose Bautista for fourth in the majors, but Hart isn’t even in the top 10 in the majors with his 14. These are not the most prolific power hitters in the league, but they’ve been enough to power the Brewers’ offense — at times.
The rest of the active roster has done the opposite of what Braun and Hart have achieved this year. In fact, Carlos Gomez, Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks, Cody Ransom and George Kottaras are all hitting balls out of the park at a slower pace in 2012. Therein lies the problem: those players shouldn’t be expected to produce the power that Braun and Hart contribute, but they should be able to add another element to the Brewers’ offense. So far, they haven’t.
And that’s why Roenicke couldn’t be completely discouraged after Sunday’s seemingly never-ending loss. Not only was his team on the road, but it also performed in ways offensively that he hasn’t seen enough this season. Sure, three of its four runs came on Hart’s home run, but hitters were making contact. Weeks, who’s been slumping all season, had three hits Sunday, driving his average closer to .200. The runners might not have scored, but at least they were getting on base.
“We swung the bat well,” Roenicke said. “We keep doing this, we’re going to be good.”