On Tuesday night, Jonathan Lucroy showed why he's become the heart of the Milwaukee Brewers. Even on a team that has been the biggest surprise in Major League Baseball so far, that's not an easy feat for an underappreciated player such as Lucroy, especially when he's teammates with hyped-up stars such as Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun.
Lucroy smacked a pair of solo home runs, including a walk-off shot in the bottom of the ninth, to propel the Brewers to a 4-3 win at home, their second in a row over the NL Central rival Cincinnati Reds, who have now lost five straight.
Most importantly, Lucroy's game-winner, which came three innings after he'd hit a solo shot to push the lead to 3-1, kept the Brew Crew in first place in MLB's most competitive division. After becoming the first division in MLB history to send three teams to the playoffs a year ago, the Central is the only one in the sport in which four teams—Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati—are over .500.
Oh, and Lucroy did all that on the very same day this happened:
So, yes, Lucroy really is the unassuming star no one talks about—and the heart of a first-place club—while playing alongside the excitable Gomez and embattled Braun, two top talents who get almost all of the attention, more than a little of which is not the flattering kind.
Lucroy, though, is finally starting to get some recognition. In his fifth big league season, the 28-year-old not only played in, but also started, his first All-Star Game last Tuesday.
Then again, even that came about only after Yadier Molina, the voted-in starter, couldn't play in the wake of suffering a long-term thumb injury. In a way, that's fitting for the understated, underrated Lucroy, who proceeded to go 2-for-2 with a pair of RBI doubles off two pitchers you may have heard of: Jon Lester and Chris Sale.
Although Lucroy entered Tuesday in the middle of the worst slump of his season to date, having gone just 3-for-30 in his previous eight games, the right-handed batter still is sporting a slash line of .310/.381/.500. Among all starting catchers, those marks rank second, third and third, respectively.
But Lucroy is more than arguably the best offensive backstop in baseball these days. He's also one of the top defenders at his position, too. He ranks in the top 10 at the spot in everything from defensive runs saved to fielding percentage to number of baserunners caught stealing.
But forget focusing solely on the men who don those tools of ignorance. Lucroy has emerged as one of the most impactful players around—period. His 3.7 wins above replacement is the 16th best among all position players in the bigs, according to FanGraphs, and Lucroy rates even better on Baseball-Reference.com, which has him at 4.2 WAR, good for ninth overall.
In short, Lucroy has put himself in the elite class of catcher—he just might be the best all-around backstop now with Molina out for several more weeks—and has become a quiet, if quippy, leader for the Brewers.
When asked about his heroics on Tuesday, Lucroy acknowledged and answered the question, only to quickly pivot and heap praise on Milwaukee's pitchers for doing their job.
"Obviously, it feels great to hit a homer and win the game like that," Lucroy said during his on-field interview afterward, amid a Gatorade bath. "But I've gotta credit our pitching staff for keeping us in [the game] and the relievers coming out of the bullpen and shutting it down."
Because a good catcher always knows his first priority is focusing on those who are throwing to him.
Catchers also say stuff like this, via Adam McCalvy of MLB.com: "I feel that I can compete at the highest level every day I go out there, barring a broken bone or I'm bleeding somewhere. I feel like I should be in the lineup every day."
With Lucroy having started 83 of Milwaukee's 101 games behind the plate to this point, it's no wonder the club has held down first place for so long.
If Lucroy can keep doing what he's been doing in all facets of the game over the rest of the season, the surprising Brewers will remain very much for real and a part of the playoff picture.
Even in what's sure to be the tightest division in the majors going forward, the Brewers should be able to stick around as long as they have Lucroy.
Which is to say, as long as they have their heart.
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