Brewers' starters offset Cubs' potent lineup

May 19th, 2016

MILWAUKEE -- David has just taken a series from Goliath. What happened between the Brewers and the Cubs over the past three games was well off the form charts.

The Brewers won two out of three behind starting pitching that went from being a problem to becoming a solution in this series. The Cubs, averaging nearly six runs per game, were held to seven runs in 31 innings in this series.

The Cubs came in with baseball's best record by a lengthy margin. Their run differential entering this series was a breathtaking plus-107. This was greater than the combined run differentials of the teams that were second and third in that category, the Red Sox and the Cardinals.

The Brewers entered this series already 12 games behind the Cubs. Milwaukee is in the first full season of a rebuilding project. Chicago has been completely, successfully rebuilt.

So yes, the Brewers were decided underdogs going into this one. Against a powerful Chicago offense, Milwaukee had the worst starting-pitching ERA in the Majors.

But here, the Brewers got the start of Chase Anderson's professional life in the opener, with Anderson carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning in what became a 4-2 victory. Jimmy Nelson, the one Milwaukee starter who had consistently performed well, threw 7 1/3 shutout innings in what ended as a 2-1 loss in 13 innings.

• Guerra, Crew rotation getting groove back

On Thursday in the rubber match, Junior Guerra, a 31-year-old who defines the term "well-traveled," struck out 11 -- a season high for the Brewers -- in seven innings to earn his third win of the season in a 5-3 Milwaukee victory.

"It was going to get better," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of the starting pitching. "They're better than what they were pitching like, and that's what's happened. Junior Guerra was outstanding today, he really was. His split-fingered pitch was devastating."

Thursday was the first day of a late-arriving spring for Milwaukee baseball, with cloudless skies and a game-time temperature of 70 degrees. For the first time this season, the Miller Park roof was open for an entire game. A crowd of 38,781 was on hand, and if many of the customers were Cubs fans from Illinois, that just added to a highly energized baseball atmosphere.

The Brewers had suffered a really difficult defeat Wednesday night, in a five-hour game in which they were unable to score in a bases-loaded, no-outs situation in the 12th inning. On Thursday, their best hitter, Ryan Braun, would once again be out with back pain, and catcher Jonathan Lucroy was given a day off behind the plate, but he pinch-hit in the eighth and struck out. Plus, closer Jeremy Jeffress had worked in five straight games over the past six days, and so he was not available.

Up against all this and Chicago, Milwaukee still prevailed.

"I'm just proud of how the guys played today after a tough game last night," Counsell said. "That was our toughest game of the year last night, without question. Then we had a couple guys out of the lineup. But we played a really good game today. It's a satisfying win, for sure. Very satisfying."

The bullpen has been one area of stability for the Brewers. With Jeffress unavailable, Michael Blazek worked the eighth and Tyler Thornburg got the ninth. Both allowed two baserunners, but they worked out of their jams with strikeouts.

• Thornburg, Blazek boost Brewers with big K's

"I want to mention Blazek and Thornburg, too, today, because they've been working hard and there were two tough innings that they delivered today," Counsell said. "That was great. They got off track a little bit and then they both got on track and made pitches when they needed to."

Thornburg recorded his first Major League save, but he took a larger view of the bullpen's work.

"I don't think any of us really care what inning we're throwing in as long as we get our job done as a bullpen," he said.

Blazek had to work through the middle of the Cubs' order.

"It was exciting," he said. "Playing the Cubs especially, you don't want to give that one away. They've become a team that everyone's looking at and wants to beat."

Coming into this series, Chicago had won 13 of its past 14 games against Milwaukee. This may be a reversal of their historical form, but in 2016, the Cubs make a suitable Goliath. And they have much better roster depth than the big Philistine had.

The Brewers, a small-market club in rebuilding mode, became David when their starting pitching evolved into a weapon, a slingshot of sorts in this case. Their victory in this series was as entertaining as it was unpredictable.