Brandon Woodruff pitched well enough on Thursday at Target Field to keep the Brewers in a ballgame. Ditto Adrian Houser on Friday night at PNC Park.
But no matter the venue, the Brewers’ offense -- shut down again in Friday’s 7-2 loss to the Pirates -- just cannot seem to supply consistent run support.
“We didn't score [enough] again tonight,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We certainly didn't do enough offensively.”
The Brewers expected more from their reconfigured offense, even in a short season and even after losing Lorenzo Cain, with the veteran outfielder and leadoff hitter electing not to play. The unit was built with many moving pieces to win the platoon matchups on a given night, but with everyone from Yelich (though he is heating up) and Keston Hiura underperforming at the top of the order to winter pickups Omar Narváez and Brock Holt slumping elsewhere on the lineup card, it has not come together. Entering Friday, only the Pirates, who ranked last in the National League in all three slash line categories as well as last in the Majors in scoring, have scored fewer runs per game than the Brewers among NL teams.
Friday looked like it might be an exception. When Gamel connected for a 425-foot home run in the second inning, the first of his three hits, it snapped the Brewers’ streak of eight straight games in which they went scoreless into the third inning. They have been outscored this season in the first two innings by a 33-4 margin.
It also represented only the sixth time in 24 games that the Brewers scored first.
Unfortunately for Counsell on his 50th birthday, it was not a sign of good things to come.
“These are our guys and we have to stay the course with them,” Counsell said. “We have some guys who just haven't got going. It was great to see Ben have a nice game today, but it just stops when guys in the lineup are struggling. It's been hard to sustain things, and that's a tough way to play offense. You need to get the circle going. It's puzzling. We've been sticking with good matchups for guys and putting them in good places to succeed, but it hasn't worked. …
“I think offensively, we are a veteran group. What they have to go back on is they’ve all had pretty big degrees of success in this league. A lot of them had very good seasons last year; most of them had very good seasons. They’re not far removed from it. That’s probably made it more puzzling.
“But it also makes you think we’re not putting guys out there who haven’t been above-average Major League hitters. That makes you optimistic about the offense, still. Although it hasn’t looked great, we haven’t dug ourselves a big hole here. We have to keep that mindset and play every game like that.”
Through the first seven innings, Gamel was 3-for-3 and the rest of Milwaukee’s hitters were a collective 0-for-21, including 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Yelich finally lent a hand leading off the eighth, when he hit his team-leading seventh home run to cut the deficit to 4-2.
The Pirates answered Yelich’s home run with three runs on five hits against Alex Claudio in the eighth to cap a 14-hit outburst. All but two of Pittsburgh’s hits were singles, including five in a row during the tiebreaking rally against Houser. Four of those hits were ground balls.
“It almost feels like a roller coaster,” Houser said. “One game, everything is clicking. The next game, the pitching is clicking but the bats aren't. And on another day, it's the bats and not the pitching. We're still trying to find a groove. I don't think we're that far off, and once we do, I think we'll be a lot of trouble for a lot of teams.”
There’s urgency to put it together. The Brewers are 11-13, and by this time next week, their regular season will be halfway over.
“There's some frustration for everybody on the team,” Brewers right-hander Josh Lindblom, who will hope for better when he starts for Milwaukee on Saturday afternoon, said before Friday's loss. “It's kind of like my season: You see some really, really good stuff, and you see some really, really bad stuff. It's kind of about meshing those two together and being consistent.
“I'd say the reason guys are frustrated right now is because of the inconsistency they're having, whether it be at the plate, whether it be on the mound. You don't want to make excuses, but this is a different season. It's hard for hitters because they can't go into [the clubhouse] between at-bats and watch video to make adjustments. The preparation is a lot different. It's tough on those guys to have to make adjustments, in a shortened season, without the tools they usually use.”