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Brewers are still searching for offense down stretch @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Just as the Brewers' training staff has been creative in trying to invent special wraps and pads to protect Ryan Braun's problematic right thumb, Ron Roenicke and Milwaukee's front office have brainstormed tirelessly trying to get their first-half powerhouse rolling again.

"They've all been tried," general manager Doug Melvin said.

Melvin was speaking about ways to minimize the jolts that Braun sometimes feels when he swings the bat.

"He's working through it," he said. "I give him credit for playing through it."

With center fielder Carlos Gomez returning to Milwaukee to rest a sprained left wrist, there's more pressure than ever for Braun or Aramis Ramirez to awaken a lineup that was the second best in the National League before the All-Star break, averaging 4.4 runs per game. But Melvin has been in baseball too long to point a spotlight at any player.

"He can hit .500 and still other guys have to hit, too," Melvin said. "They say [Matt] Holliday has gotten hot in St. Louis, but other guys have gotten hot, too. At this time, everybody has to step up. I don't think it's any one guy. Ryan could hit .500, but with nobody on base, it doesn't mean anything."

Since starting the season 53-43, the Brewers have gone 20-22, falling behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and into a serious fight with the Braves and Pirates for one of the two NL Wild Card tickets into the playoffs. Their losing streak was extended to seven on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, when the Cubs coasted to a 7-1 victory.

The moment of the night came when Arismendy Alcantara, who continues to look more and more like a young Jimmy Rollins, blasted a two-run homer into the right-field seats. It was his eighth since joining the Cubs on July 9.

Oh, how the Brewers would love to have a kid with that kind of pop.

At the moment, nothing seems to be working for the Crew. Roenicke used his managerial discretion to start the versatile Elian Herrera at shortstop, looking to help his lineup against powerful right-hander Jake Arrieta, and Herrera made two quick errors, contributing to the Cubs' four-run first inning.

So much for playing "mistake-free," which Melvin listed as one of the keys to getting the team turned around. He and owner Mark Attanasio made significant commitments to try to help, adding right-hander Jonathan Broxton and outfielder Gerardo Parra in trades. The Broxton deal seems especially significant, as he comes with an $11 million price tag for 2015.

Attanasio had already signed off a $103.4 million payroll to open the season, the biggest in club history. It was the late signing of Matt Garza that got them into nine-figure territory, and Garza will have a lot to say about how the season turns out.

Garza has been on the disabled list since Aug. 4 with a left oblique strain, but he will be activated Wednesday to face the Cubs before the Brewers head home for a four-game series with the Cardinals. He's 7-7 with a 3.58 ERA in 23 starts, and he had been Milwaukee's best starter in June and July.

Melvin knows a hot, confident starter can make a difference in September. He saw it himself in 2008, after beating the big-market clubs to CC Sabathia.

"I'm a big believer that there are so many components in the game," Melvin said. "They all have to work. You can make a trade, and people get so caught up in adding one player, but in all the time I've been doing this, there was only one time when one player [made the difference]. It was Sabathia. We didn't hit in September that year, but Sabathia carried us that month, in September."

Garza will welcome the challenge to play the role of Sabathia. The question with him, as with Braun, is whether he can hold together physically.

When the Brewers rolled into the playoffs in 2008 and '11, Braun joined Prince Fielder as one of two driving forces. He hit 37 homers in '08, 33 in '11 and drove in 100-plus runs both seasons. That was, of course, before Braun served his 65-game suspension from the Biogenesis scandal. It was also before the nerve damage in his right thumb had presented itself.

Some thought rest during Braun's suspension would fix that issue, but it didn't, and Braun isn't looking like his old self. He lined a sharp single to right field -- the direction most of his hits go these days -- to drive in a run in the third inning on Tuesday, but he ended his night early, leaving for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning as Roenicke emptied his bench. Braun is batting .275 with 18 homers and 77 RBIs in 114 games.

Braun recently volunteered to move out of the No. 3 spot in the order, but Roenicke hasn't taken him up on it. He might if anyone else was raking, but it's been a long time since guys up and down the lineup were hitting.

The math gets harder with Gomez unable to swing a bat. He's been ordered to rest through the weekend and will see how he feels next week. The Brewers need Gomez, and everyone else, to finish strong.

"We've got our work cut out for us here with a month left," Melvin said. "We have to get back on track. All these pennant races go down to the last week anyway, regardless."

The Brewers aren't expecting to be left behind.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Milwaukee Brewers