Brewers must scrap until help, health arrives
MILWAUKEE -- Does an NFL team panic if it loses its first game?
Ten games in a Major League Baseball season equate to nearly one full NFL game, or in other words, a small chunk of a very long season.
Though the Brewers were 2-8 through their first 10 games of 2013, their season wasn't doomed to the basement of the division. Milwaukee has responded with three straight wins to crawl back to 5-8 and just 2.5 games out of first place in the NL Central.
Coming up on three weeks into the season, the Brewers have played bad baseball and have played good baseball with not much of an in between. A look at five of the key issues in the team's slow start – and sudden resurgence – and which will either be fleeting or have staying power as the season continues:
The bullpen has been drastically better in wins.
As obvious as it sounds, Milwaukee's bullpen has simply performed better in the five wins than it has in the eight losses. A lot of that has to do with how the relievers have fared during the three-game winning streak. The bullpen has a 2.50 ERA in wins and a 6.29 ERA in losses. Most teams' bullpen numbers look much better in victories, but this is an ongoing trend for the Brewers. In 2012, Milwaukee was in the playoff race until the end despite a bullpen that had a major league-worst 4.66 ERA with 29 blown saves. John Axford and Michael Gonzalez started this season with late-inning roles and have struggled. With Axford working through things in a different role, Jim Henderson has done well in a short period of time as the team's closer. Tom Gorzelanny has pitched well, and Burke Badenhop and Brandon Kintzler have had rough spots, but both did their job during the winning streak. Will the bullpen struggles be a trend? It's too early to tell. Nobody would have guessed Milwaukee's bullpen would have been as bad as it was last season, and bullpen success is nearly impossible to predict. The sample size is just too small to see a trend quite yet, but a few things are clear. The Brewers need Axford to at least become a reliable reliever, Gonzalez to get left-handers out and Badenhop to be a solid workhorse. Who knows, Francisco Rodriguez, signed to a minor league deal Wednesday, might even make an impact. We'll just have to wait and see.
Timely hitting has been in short supply.
The Brewers simply couldn't get a clutch hit during the first 10 games of the season. There was a stretch last week in which the Brewers couldn't even get anybody on base. During the three-game winning streak, Milwaukee not only has put runners on base but it has gotten clutch hitting. It all started Sunday in St. Louis when Ryan Braun broke a franchise-record 32 inning scoreless streak with a two-run eighth-inning home run to cut a deficit to 3-2. Yuniesky Betancourt had a clutch double to tie the game in the ninth inning, and Jonathan Lucroy came through with a big home run in the 10th that eventually won the game. In Tuesday's series opener with the Giants, Rickie Weeks started an eight-run third inning with a two-run double. Though many players had big hits in the inning – including Betancourt with a grand slam – Weeks' double felt like it lifted a weight off the shoulders. With Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez on the shelf for a bit longer, the Brewers don't have their usual punch in the middle of the lineup. When the Brewers do get runners in scoring position, they must capitalize more often than not to score enough runs to be able to win games without two of their power threats.
The other guys need to do more – for now.
Milwaukee should expect to have some offensive lulls without Hart and Ramirez, but early-season struggles by Lucroy, Carlos Gomez and Rickie Weeks compounded matters. Gomez has nine hits in his last 13 at-bats and is now hitting an even .300 on the season. Lucroy has made a mechanical adjustment and is swinging the bat much better. Weeks is still struggling to find consistency in the cleanup spot, but the Brewers are getting others to help Braun, including the hot-hitting duo of Norichika Aoki and Jean Segura. Even Betancourt has chipped in with a few big hits. Milwaukee's offense is going to be fine when it's healthy. But the key is going to be scoring enough runs to win games before the lineup gets back to full strength.
Injuries have been a fact, not an excuse.
Milwaukee can't afford any more missing players. Ramirez's knee injury was a big blow to suffer right away. That's not to say Hart's injury isn't felt, but Milwaukee knew its first baseman was going to miss at least the first two months of the season. The Brewers played three games without Braun and lost all three. Segura and Alex Gonzalez have missed games with injuries, and the Brewers had to pinch hit with a starting pitcher with the tying run on third base with two outs in an extra-innings game against Arizona. There's never a good time for an injury, but the Brewers are due a bit of good fortune at this point. If another starter goes down for more than a day or two, Milwaukee will be in a real tough spot.
The rotation is still taking shape.
What do we know so far about the starting pitchers? Kyle Lohse has made spring training look unnecessary and has picked up right where he left off as one of the National League's best pitchers; Marco Estrada appears poised to have a solid year; Wily Peralta is going to flash signs of dominance while also enduring struggles; and Yovani Gallardo is going to take his usual time – especially with an off-field issue – to settle in. The fifth starter is still an unknown. Mike Fiers got one start before moving to the bullpen when off days left a fifth starter unnecessary until May. The rainout in Chicago means the Brewers will need a fifth starter Saturday against the Cubs, but Brewers manager Ron Roenicke is hesitant to give Fiers the ball because he hasn't pitched well in the bullpen. Either Tyler Thornburg or Hiram Burgos is likely to come up from Triple-A to start Saturday with a great chance to earn a rotation spot for the time being. The Brewers had a stretch where the rotation wasn't going deep into games, and it was putting pressure on the bullpen to cover a lot of innings. That trend shouldn't continue because the Brewers appear to have a very solid top three in the rotation. Gallardo, Lohse and Estrada are going to be just fine. From there, the Brewers are going to have to live with the ups and downs of the two young pitchers who fill the fourth and fifth spots. Has every question about the rotation been answered? Not yet. But Lohse's early-season performance has settled things down. Just think if the Brewers didn't have him.
Follow Andrew Gruman on Twitter.