MILWAUKEE — As Ron Roenicke went to fill out his lineup for Sunday’s series finale against the New York Yankees, the skipper couldn’t help but have flashbacks to last season.
With Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez out due to injuries and Jonathan Lucroy needing a day off from behind the plate, who was Roenicke going to hit in the middle of the lineup?
This is exactly the kind of deja vu the Milwaukee Brewers wanted to avoid.
Braun is expected to return from the disabled list as early as Tuesday, but Ramirez is likely to trade places with him on the DL with a hamstring injury. The Brewers also will hear Major League Baseball’s ruling on the appeal of Carlos Gomez’s suspension sometime Monday or Tuesday, as the center fielder will be forced to miss time in the coming days.
If for some reason Braun isn’t able to return for Tuesday’s game, the Brewers could be without their three best hitters for a good portion of a three-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Brewers currently are tied with San Francisco for the best record in the National League at 24-14, holding a five-game lead over St. Louis in the National League Central. Now the focus turns to surviving a stretch of playing shorthanded.
"It’s huge; health is huge," Roenicke said. "We’ll get through this period, hopefully get everybody the same time, but we’ve got to get through this period playing good baseball. Our pitching I think is good enough to do that. We’ve just got to figure out scrapping some runs (together). Hopefully we get through it."
Part of the reason the Brewers fell out of contention last season was because they had to play without Braun and Ramirez hitting together in the middle of the order for the majority of 2013.
Mark Reynolds has played 715 career games at third base and will likely see a good portion of the playing time at third base for however long Ramirez is out. But what that does is split up the righty-lefty platoon at first base, leaving Lyle Overbay to play every day.
The Brewers will face two left-handed starters in the Pirates series and will likely see lefty Travis Wood in Chicago on Saturday, meaning Jeff Bianchi could make a few starts at third base with Reynolds playing first base. With the slew of left-handed pitchers coming up, the Brewers could opt to send outfielder Caleb Gindl down to bring up the more versatile Elian Herrera or another infielder from the minor leagues.
Logan Schafer, who is the backup center fielder, also hits left-handed. He could play against a left-handed starter, but the matchup isn’t ideal.
No matter who plays third base or center field on a given night, the Brewers are going to need others to pick up their offensive production without Ramirez and Gomez. Braun’s return will provide a big boost, but guys like Khris Davis and Jean Segura need to snap out of their slumps at the plate.
One benefit to facing three left-handed pitchers this week is Roenicke can keep the red-hot bat of Rickie Weeks in the lineup. Weeks has eight hits in his last 12 at-bats to raise his batting average to .318.
"It’s going to be a challenge for us," Gomez said. "Every day and every game is important. Rami’s going to be out, but Rickie (Weeks) is the hot guy in the lineup, so put him in there and he’s going to take care of business until Rami comes back.
"We need Khris Davis to start getting hot again — I don’t think he’s going to be like this for the whole year. He’s in a big of a slump but he’ll be fine. All the players they put in the lineup, they just need to keep up the intensity until we have the real lineup."
Knowing they were going to be shorthanded in the coming days made Sunday’s walk-off victory over the Yankees a big one for the Brewers. It not only prevented a third straight series loss, the back-to-back wins over New York put a bit of confidence back in Milwaukee’s clubhouse after starting 2-6 in May.
"All this stuff with us not playing well came because of the injuries," Roenicke said. "Not that we can’t overcome some of it, but sometimes it gets you out of that rhythm. The guys that have been out there every day and then you have new lineups . . . it’s not fun when I had to try and figure out who was going to hit fourth (Saturday)."
The main difference in this time this year as opposed to last season’s disastrous 6-22 May is that the pitching staff — both the starters and relievers — are throwing the ball well. Milwaukee’s starting rotation was all out of sorts last May, while the Brewers have been getting quality starts regularly in 2014.
With the offense expected to be up and down until the lineup is back at full strength, the pitching will have to carry the Brewers for a bit longer.
"The guys that are healthy, it is their job to go out there and perform," Reynolds said. "We are kind of treading water until we get some guys back. It just takes different guys to step up each night to push some runs across."