NEW YORK – One by one, as the All-Star break approached, the surprise division leaders ceded their positions to the preseason favorites. The Colorado Rockies saw the Los Angeles Dodgers blow by them with an incredible surge. The New York Yankees stumbled to finish the first half of the season behind the Boston Red Sox, and Minnesota got reeled in by Cleveland.
The one exception is the Milwaukee Brewers, who have been either tied for the lead or alone atop the National League Central since May 27. Just when it looked like the Brew Crew might go flat, they won nine of their last 11 games before the All-Star break, growing a one-game lead to 5.5 over the defending world-champion Cubs.
That strong finishing kick to the first half included an 11-2 win over Chicago last Thursday, in a make-up game for a rainout in May that Milwaukee found dubious. That victory mathematically ensured the Brewers would head to the All-Star break in first place.
“Especially given the circumstances of that Cubs game, yeah, it was big,” Brewers righthander Jimmy Nelson said. “We know we can hang with the top-tier teams, and we’ve shown that in quite a few series this season.”
Milwaukee took two of three from both Boston and New York in interleague play, and has gone 4-5 against the Cubs, with four of those losses coming in the first three weeks of the season, before the Brewers really found their stride – if they’ve even done that yet.
“There’s really a lot of games we let slip away in the first half of the season that we felt like we should have easily won,” Nelson said, and it’s pretty true given that Milwaukee is 3-7 in extra innings. “I don’t think we’ve really even played up to our potential, and there’s a lot more we can do, a lot more we can prove.”
That potential has started to show itself more of late, even with the game Milwaukee allowed to get away in the Bronx, when Clint Frazier hit a walk-off home run. The Brewers are 17-9 since being shut out in the first game of a doubleheader in St. Louis on June 13, seemingly getting stronger as they get more comfortable with the idea of being a first-place team.
They just want to make sure not to get too comfortable.
“I was here in ’14, too, when we had a big lead, and even had the lead going into the All-Star break,” Nelson said. “Things kind of went downhill after that. You can’t look so far ahead that you don’t take care of your daily business. I think everybody here has a really good focus and really good mindset to just come in and take care of business every day, and focus on that game, that day. At the end of the season, everything will come out like it’s supposed to.”
The 2014 Brewers led the Central by as many as 6.5 games, before losing 11 of 13 heading into the All-Star break to allow the division race to tighten up. Milwaukee still led through the end of August, but a nine-game losing streak that extended into September continued the tailspin. The Brewers wound up eight games behind the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of the season.
Nelson is one of four current Brewers, along with Ryan Braun, Matt Garza, and Wily Peralta, who was part of the team three years ago. The amount of turnover speaks to the depth of the rebuild that Milwaukee has undertaken, but having a few veteran voices in the room to provide some institutional memory is important. It has a way of filtering down.
“Job’s not done,” said closer Corey Knebel, who came to the Brewers just after the 2014 season, in the trade that sent Yovani Gallardo to Texas. “Definitely, going into the All-Star break, with a nice four days off (in first place), it’s a nice feeling. We know we’ve got a lot to do, but you can take those four days as a break, refresh mentally, and then you enjoy it when you come back to work more. We’ll be ready to go, and that’s what fires me up the most, is this team is not giving up, and we’re not going to give in. It’s been fun.”
The fun has every chance to continue, because coming out of the break, the Brewers play 10 games against the moribund Phillies and struggling Pirates. Then comes a real test, as Milwaukee closes July against the Cubs and Cardinals, at which point there may be some reinforcements coming in deadline trades.
“Not looking so far ahead, not even thinking about playoffs, just trying to take care of our business one day at a time,” Nelson said. “I think everybody here, honestly, has done a great job of that. Over the last couple of months, we’ve looked around, looked at each other, and said, heck, we are really good, we can do this, and we’ve proven it to ourselves several times.”
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