The Milwaukee Brewers are still riding high after an improbable momentum shift in St. Louis last weekend. After plucking an extra-innings victory out of the grasp of the Cardinals on Sunday, the Brewers have now beaten the reigning world champion San Francisco Giants two games in a row and ensured their first best-of-three series victory in the 2013 regular season.
There's no doubt that the city of Milwaukee sighed a loud, collective sigh of relief after the Brewers beat the Giants 4-3 for the second time in two days on Wednesday night.
After starting the season a woeful 2-8, the team has brewed up something special and has climbed to a record of 5-8 in the span of four days. More importantly, the team has regained much needed confidence as it attempts to get through a period of injuries to some of the team's biggest bats.
Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart are both still sidelined with injuries which has left a significant void at the all-important middle of the lineup.
After being outscored 13-0 through their first 25 innings against the Cardinals last weekend, the Brewers gained new life when Ryan Braun hit a two-run shot in the top of the eighth of the series finale. If the Brewers current streak builds into something significant, it will be Braun's home run that people will surely look back upon as the catalyst.
Riding the momentum of Braun's long ball, the Brewers then tied up the game in the ninth, eventually winning it behind a solo home run by Jonathan Lucroy.
Since that game in St. Louis, Milwaukee's offense has been on fire. In their first two games against the Giants, the Brewers have already produced 21 hits. By comparison, the Brewers had only six hits in their first two games against the Cardinals.
And these results can't be attributed to subpar pitching as the Giants and the Cardinals field two of the better rotations in the National League.
Which pitcher is best suited for the fifth spot in the rotation?
The entire organization should be credited with what has been a sharp turnaround. From top to bottom the Brewers came together in the face of adversity and made the necessary adjustments. The last two games against the Giants showed a patient approach at the plate while pitch selection has improved dramatically.
From a player management perspective, Ron Roenicke moved swiftly to sit closer John Axford after he struggled at the beginning of the season. Promoting Jim Henderson to the role has been a boon for the team, as the Brewers' three consecutive wins have all been close games.
Hopefully, Roenicke will continue to manage his relievers with the same efficiency and calculation he has shown beginning with the benching of Axford. It seems critical that Roenicke remain open minded in how to manage and maneuver his bullpen.
Axford did pitch a 1-2-3 inning in relief on Tuesday against the Giants. However, improved results by Axford shouldn't necessarily mean that he be immediately reinstalled as the team's closer. If Axford continues pitching well in middle relief, why not leave him in that role? Especially if Henderson continues to thrive as the team's man in the ninth.
There's simply no need to push a square peg through a round hole. Baseball is a team game and half the battle is finding the right combination of players to most effectively realize a team's maximum potential. That cannot occur without some degree of trial and error. It certainly doesn't occur when sticking with a inflexible mentality (i.e. Axford must be the closer or Rickie Weeks must bat early in the lineup) in the face of subpar results.
Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin has also been working to atone for some miscues during the offseason, primarily related to the pitching staff. As reported by Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Brewers re-signed Francisco Rodriguez to a deal on Wednesday. Rodriguez was anything but stellar in 2012, so this move in no way guarantees improvement for the Brewer's bullpen, but it is a low risk gamble that could pay off this season.
Tom Haudricourt also reported that Melvin is thinking of adding one of the team's rising minor league pitchers to the full squad in order to fortify the starting rotation. Mike Fiers, tabbed as a starter late in spring training, has resembled at the start of 2013 the same pitcher he was in the latter part of 2012. He has already accumulated an unflattering ERA of 8.59.
Hiram Burgos, the Brewers minor-league pitcher of the year in 2012, pitched effectively in the World Baseball Classic earlier this spring. According to Haudricourt, Burgos, along with Tyler Thornburg and Johnny Hellweg, comprise the group from which the Brewers would likely choose a call-up.
Fans can only hope this style of aggressive, out-of-the-box thinking continues throughout the season.
Along those lines, it will be critical for Roenicke to effectively manage the upcoming return of some of his bats to the lineup. The Brewers young shortstop prospect, Jean Segura, has gotten off to a hot start and appears comfortable hitting out of number two spot. Similarly, Norichika Aoki has been flourishing as the team's leadoff hitter.
Who should bat second in the Brewers lineup?
Unless Segura or Aoki experience a precipitous drop in production, Roenicke should consider installing a struggling Weeks into the back end of the batting order after the return of Ramirez and Hart. That would leave the team with a formidable first six batters in the lineup: Aoki, Segura, Braun, Ramirez, Hart and Lucroy.
If Weeks does continue to struggle at the plate after Ramirez and Hart return, Roenicke might even consider Yuniesky Betancourt or Alex Gonzalez in a platoon situation at second base. Those two have acquitted themselves well as injury replacements; they likely have enough fielding experience to handle second base.
Betancourt has two home runs and six RBI in his last two games and is without question hitting better than Weeks thus far in the season. If these trends continue, Roenicke would be wise to consider finding a place for Betancourt in the lineup after Ramirez and Hart are back with the team.
It's well known that the baseball season is a long, grueling affair. If the Brewers approach the next set of speed bumps in the season with the same aggressiveness and creative techniques as they have shown in the early part of the season, then the team and its fans should be in for some exciting baseball come fall.
Making smart adjustments to the team and showing some mettle and moxy in the face of adversity are just what the doctor ordered to make a deep postseason run.