Someone please pinch me and tell me that I am not dreaming.
What in the world are the Milwaukee Brewers eating for breakfast these days?
Is this the same team that started the season with a 4-9 record? Is this the team that was supposed to take a major step back after losing CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets in the offseason?
Is this the team that would swing at everything that moves in the air with an all-or-nothing approach at the plate struggling to manufacture runs the good old fashioned way—by putting people on base? Is this the team that is notorious for having a defensively challenged lineup?
With a 23-14 record, Milwaukee is at the top of what appears to be the best division in the National League thus far. They share the third best record in all of baseball with the Texas Rangers.
The Brewers started out by losing their first four series this season. Since Apr. 22, however, Milwaukee has achieved a record of 19-5—MLB best for the period. Ken Macha's troops have also won eleven of their last thirteen games and are 7-0-2 in their nine most recent series.
Simply put, Milwaukee is on fire!
So how is it that a team written off by everyone at the beginning of the season is doing so well?
I have a few pointers for you, in case you have not been paying much attention to the red hot Brewers.
How about throwing strikes?
Here is a good recipe for success every manager should have in his playbook.
The starting rotation for the Brewers—Gallardo, Suppan, Parra, Looper and Bush—started the season poorly and offered some lackluster performances.
Suppan, Gallardo and Parra all had a hard time finding the strike zone early in the season. The eminent result was the countless walks issued by the pitching staff.
When you don't make your opponents swing their bats, when you don't make them earn their runs, and when instead you issue multiple free passes every game, you are setting yourself up for being in a hole in most games.
And as good and potent the Brewers offense appears to be this season, trying to outscore the opponent will not get a team to where the Brewers are at the moment.
The starters for the Crew appear to have realized in recent weeks that no one expects of them to do everything themselves and win games in a fashion similar to what the state of Wisconsin, and the entire nation, witnessed last season with CC Sabathia on the mound.
Bill Castro—the new Brewers pitching coach—must have had a word with his staff. He must have communicated what he saw.
And the results showed.
The approach on the mound changed completely after the bad start of the season. Now, when a team beats Milwaukee—even if it is a bad loss—you know it was a hard earned win for the opponent, where they did the work with their bats, and were not provided with gifts, as was the case in April.
Another major component of the team's success is the approach at the plate.
Known for their power, the Milwaukee sluggers are now making some adjustments under new hitting coach—and former Brewers manager—Dale Sveum.
It was painful to watch this roster in late innings last season when they were down by a run or two. Every single player used to go out there trying to hit a HR. This was the style of Jim Skaalen—last year's hitting coach for the Brewers under Ned Yost.
There was no patience at the plate and the words fundamental baseball and small ball were not listed in Milwaukee's playbook last year.
This year, the Brewers have come back to win 13 games in which they trailed.
The Brewers are still known for their power, having hit 48 home runs already—fourth in the league in that category. But there is also a noticeable attempt to play a more fundamental style of baseball.
Through the first 37 games the OBP of the team is .347 compared to .325 last season.
When you consider that some key players, such as JJ Hardy and Corey Hart, have been struggling at the plate, and with Prince Fielder only coming through strong in the last few games, the rather insignificant at first glance increase in OBP may turn out to be a major factor if the Brewers are to make it to the postseason once again.
And speaking of offense, there are two players that have to be singled out. One of them is Ryan Braun—no surprise there—and the second one...Rickie Weeks.
Ryan Braun is doing just what a player of his caliber is supposed to.
But how about Weeks?
A quick comparison of numbers among all NL second basemen shows that Rickie is among the best, not only on offense but also on defense.
Last year, Weeks struggled in his role as the team's lead off hitter. The Brewers were not ready to give up on him just yet because of his tendency to score runs once he got on base—he came around to score about 50 percent of the time after getting on base.
Possessing outstanding speed around the bases, and tremendous power with his bat, Weeks is turning in some eye-opening numbers.
He is batting .272, with 9 homers, and 28 runs scored in 37 games. If your name is Rickie Weeks, and you are the same player from previous seasons, those numbers are quite impressive.
Willie Randolph—former Mets manager and current Brewers bench coach—has been working with Weeks in practice, and it seems that Weeks is finally able to show some of the pure potential he possesses.
And speaking of Willie Randolph, now is the time to give credit to the coaching trio for the Brewers. Ken Macha, Dale Sveum and Randolph all lead a team for a period of time in the past. There were concerns about how the egos of three former team managers would collide in the locker room, but we have seen none of that so far.
In fact, I would point to the coaching staff for squeezing the most out of this Brewers team that was never supposed to be in contention.
And finally, how about that bullpen for the Brewers?
Big questions surrounded that component of the roster. And the questions everyone was asking were warranted considering the loss of Torres, who did a good overall job in the closer role last season.
Brain Shouse was also lost in free agency, and the Brewers had to find new faces across the board. Villanueva and McClung were the familiar faces from last season, and Mitch Stetter was promoted to the Brewers lefty specialist.
But having Mark DiFelice, Todd Coffey, and Jorge Julio in the bullpen was not giving fans much hope.
Needless to say the Brewers bullpen has done an outstanding job thus far. Villanueva struggled early on but has now settled, and Mark DiFelice and Todd Coffey have made heads turn in the NL.
But there is one player I have not mentioned yet. And it is that one player that sparked the bullpen's performance after coming off the DL list early in the season.
That player is Trevor Hoffmann who agreed to a one year $5 million deal with the Brewers after the Padres failed to keep their legend closer at the end of last season.
And now look at those numbers: ERA: 0.00, WHIP: 0.30, SV: 9/9, IP: 10, BAA: .094, Hits Allowed: 3.
Hells Bells is turning into a love song in the ears of Brewers fans.
What composure, control, and cool approach is everyone in Milwaukee witnessing from the veteran closer who is at the end of his career.
So now there is one more important question people around the league must be asking themselves. Are the Brewers going to be able to maintain this pace and make another postseason push?
The answer to this question will come with time, even if 37 games seems to be a representative sample for how good a team is. The Brewers young sluggers keep developing into polished stars.
The defense is better than advertised. The bullpen has been outstanding so far. And the starting pitching is far from the Apocalypse many predicted with the departure of Sabathia and Sheets.
I sometimes can't help but wonder how great this team would have been if, in fact, CC had decided to stay, but we will never know the answer.
With or without him, however, the Brewers currently share the third best record in the majors. And if they have been flying under your radar until now, it's time you start looking in the direction of the state of Wisconsin more often.
I promise you there will be much more to do there than taking the traditional brewery tour, or visiting the summer festival.
It's Brewers season in Wisconsin, and it's contagious!
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