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Milwaukee must solve St. Louis if title is in the cards

MILWAUKEE -- It's early May, and already the Brewers seem to have played three seasons.

There was the 2-8 start, miserable on numerous levels.

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Then there was a splendid 12-3 stretch. The pitching improved. The hitting improved. The team's entire outlook improved. Clearly, the corner had been turned.

Well, not really. Following the 12-3 run, the Brewers have gone into Phase III of the 2013 season: a five-game losing streak.

Worse, the last four of those losses came against the Cardinals. Two of them were highly competitive, one-run defeats. But the 10-1 loss in Sunday's series finale had no redeeming quality.

The Brewers are 1-6 this season against the Cardinals. If Milwaukee wants to cash in on any of its aspirations for winning the National League Central, it will have to figure out how to compete on something like even terms with St. Louis.

When Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was asked if there's any rational explanation for the erratic nature of his team's performance, he responded, "No. And that makes it difficult. It's hard when you see the type of ball when we were playing well, and then we turn around and put together a series like we did.

"It's tough to lose four games at home. Against a good club, we knew we had to play good baseball, and we didn't. We played good baseball for two games."

Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, asked the same question, replied, "That's baseball, though. It's a game of failure. One thing you've got to do is stay consistent, not get too high, not get too low. If you can stay consistent, most of the time, I think, you're going to come out on top."

There have mitigating circumstances when it comes to the Brewers' early roller-coaster performance. For the vast majority of the season, they have been without two lineup mainstays, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and first baseman Corey Hart. Ramirez, coming off a knee injury, started two of the last three games against the Cardinals, but Hart will not return until the end of May.

The other mitigating factor doesn't offer much consolation: The Cardinals played terrific baseball over the past four games. They went to Miller Park with, by the numbers, the best starting pitching in baseball. Still, they had issues in the bullpen, and they were underachieving offensively.

But their offense came on in this series, scoring 29 runs. And the bullpen appeared to be solidified with the addition of two rookies, Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness. Martinez pitched a spotless ninth inning on Sunday, displaying a fastball that consistently reached 99 mph. Martinez and Maness are more evidence of the wealth of young pitching the St. Louis organization has developed and is still developing, but it was also evidence of just how tough this team can be.

"We know what kind of team they have," Roenicke said. "We know what kind of roll they've been on with their [starting] pitching. I don't know who would write them off this year. ... Their offense is the best in our league. They play good defense. You look out there, and you may not think that they're the best defensive team, but they play good defense. They don't beat themselves very often.

"And I know some of their pitchers in the bullpen haven't put up the numbers, but when you have those kinds of arms, that's a great team over there."

This assessment is completely accurate. The Cardinals, who were one victory away from the World Series last October, are both talented and tenacious. The relentless nature of their play was demonstrated on Saturday, a back-and-forth gem of a contest that ended in a 7-6 victory for the Redbirds. The Brewers scored five runs against Adam Wainwright, who had a 1.93 ERA against them going in, the best ERA of any active pitcher with 50 or more innings pitched against Milwaukee. But it still wasn't enough.

"I thought [Saturday] was a big game," Roenicke said. "It's so early that you can't worry about where you are, and that one is so much more important than the other, but they're all important. I don't feel like, 'You lose one here and you've got a lot left, so what?' You can't lose games that you need to win.

"And I thought battling against Wainwright was going to be an important game to win. I thought we should have won. And it's a very difficult game to lose. We'll bounce back. We'll be fine. But at the end of the season, if you come up one or two games short, you look back and you say, 'These are games we shouldn't have lost.'

"They did a nice job offensively [on Saturday] and really, they got some bigger hits than we got. We got big hits, but they came through a little bigger than we did."

Inevitably, Roenicke was asked if the Brewers simply didn't match up well with the Cardinals.

"When we're playing good baseball and everything's working well, I feel we can play with anybody," he said. "But everything has to go right."

This was a dispiriting weekend for the patrons at Miller Park, even after the sun appeared, the temperatures climbed and the roof was opened. The Brewers have already demonstrated this season that they can bounce back from a truly discouraging stretch. The trick would be, after bouncing back the next time, not to go on another extended losing streak.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

Milwaukee Brewers