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Best could still lie ahead for real-deal Crew

MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Forget everything you thought you knew back in March and April. The Brewers really can win the National League Central.

The All-Star break is a few days away, and the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline just around the corner. It's time for everyone to start thinking about the Brew Crew as something more than an early-season storyline.

View Full Game Coverage

CHICAGO -- Forget everything you thought you knew back in March and April. The Brewers really can win the National League Central.

The All-Star break is a few days away, and the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline just around the corner. It's time for everyone to start thinking about the Brew Crew as something more than an early-season storyline.

View Full Game Coverage

The Brewers held a 4 1/2-game lead over the Cubs when they left Wrigley Field after winning Thursday's makeup game, 11-2, and to be honest, they really haven't done anything remarkable. Milwaukee's longest winning streak is four games, and the Brewers' one brand-name player (Ryan Braun) has missed more than half of their games.

"Most people in our clubhouse would say we probably haven't played up to our potential to this point," general manager David Stearns said. "We haven't had the entire team clicking at one time this season. That gives us a sense of optimism as we head to the second half."

While Chicago's mediocrity has been one of the biggest surprises of the first half, Milwaukee has quietly put itself on pace to win 88 games after losing 89 last season. It may seem audacious to think about them taking down the Cubs team that won 103 regular-season games and the World Series last year, but it's hardly unprecedented.

Video: Must C Comeback: Pina ties it, Thames walks it off

Fifteen teams have won a division title the season after losing at least 89 games since 1969. Four of those teams -- most recently, the 2011 D-backs -- did so by knocking off the defending World Series champion.

Craig Counsell, the Brewers' third-year manager, knows about winning. He earned rings with the 1997 Marlins and the 2001 D-backs, and he wasted little time creating a winning environment in Milwaukee, where he spent the last five seasons of his playing career as an infielder.

"We have a lot of very [high] quality people in that clubhouse," Stearns said. "We have people who enjoy being around each other, and that feeds off itself a little bit. A lot of that starts with the culture that Craig and his staff started to implement last year in Spring Training. It carried through last year and it has really just multiplied and grown this year, where we have a team that very much believes in itself."

Eric Thames hit 11 home runs in the Brewers' first 22 games, signaling that something special was going on. Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton have added 14-plus of their own, giving Milwaukee more home runs than anyone else in the NL.

Video: MIL@STL: Shaw puts Brewers up late with clutch homer

"I feel like the way this team is, there were no expectations," Thames said. "Everybody just didn't want to finish last. … But now everybody's saying this team's actually pretty good. For us, there's no pressure. It's just a bunch of guys playing ball, kind of like a Bad News Bears sort of thing. Just, 'Let's see what happens,' you know? We're having fun."

Closer Corey Knebel was the only Brewers player named to the NL All-Star team. Thames (23 home runs, 43 RBIs) was squeezed out by the glut of productive first basemen, and Shaw went unrecognized even though he's leading the lineup in WAR (2.9 per Baseball-Reference, 2.6 per FanGraphs).

Milwaukee is building something that's bigger than any of the parts.

"The most rewarding thing to us as an organization is that we had so many people contribute to the team in this first half," Stearns said. "It hasn't been one or two guys. It truly has been a team of 25-30 players that we've asked to take on very significant roles throughout these first three months, and whoever we've asked to step up, to this point, that player has been able to step up, on both sides of the ball."

No one has been bigger than Knebel. He moved into the closer's role in mid-May, replacing Neftali Feliz, and has gone 13-for-16 in save situations. Knebel's curveball has turned into a major weapon, helping him compile a 1.11 ERA while striking out 71 in 40 2/3 innings.

Video: Corey Knebel is going to the NL All-Star Game

"Corey's been absolutely incredible this year," Counsell said. "He's taken a huge step forward. … Going into this season, I really thought he came into this season with something to prove. He's really harnessed the curveball this year. It's just become a huge weapon for him."

Defense is one area both Counsell and Stearns believe the Brewers can improve in over the second half. They rank 20th in MLB.com's Defensive Efficiency ranking, although it's easy to see the upward mobility with 22-year-old defensive wizard Orlando Arcia at short and Broxton in center field.

"I always think we can be better defensively," Counsell said. "I wouldn't disagree with that. I think at times we've played very good defense. I think Arcia's impact is understated in the metrics, truly understated. He's had a huge impact defensively on this team."

Video: Must C Clutch: Santana, Arcia complete comeback

Jimmy Nelson, Matt Garza and the sidelined Chase Anderson (6-2, 2.89 ERA in 16 starts) have been keys for a starting rotation that ranks fifth in the NL in ERA. The organization has assembled its depth options, including lefty Josh Hader, who is currently working out of the bullpen.

But what if Stearns could swing a trade for one of the controllable starting pitchers on the market. Milwaukee seems an ideal destination for White Sox lefty Jose Quintana, for instance.

"We'll continue to evaluate it, see what's out there that could potentially make sense," Stearns said, without addressing any particular pitchers. "But I'm comfortable with this group. This group has gotten us to this point in the season."

Imagine if the best really is yet to come.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com.

Milwaukee Brewers