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Stormy loss ends Crew's rough pre-break stretch

@AdamMcCalvy
July 7, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- Jesús Aguilar homered twice to cap a promising series and Keston Hiura made it close with a two-run home run, but the Brewers went into the All-Star break the same way they did a year ago, with a rainy loss at PNC Park. In Sunday's 6-5 loss that

PITTSBURGH -- Jesús Aguilar homered twice to cap a promising series and Keston Hiura made it close with a two-run home run, but the Brewers went into the All-Star break the same way they did a year ago, with a rainy loss at PNC Park.

In Sunday's 6-5 loss that was delayed for 40 minutes at the start of the sixth inning by a storm, Aguilar hit a game-tying, two-run homer in the seventh only to see Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds answer with a three-run shot off Junior Guerra. With five losses in their last six games, the Brewers reached the break in second place in the National League Central at 47-44. It marks the first time in more than two months that they are within one three-game sweep of the .500 mark.

Box score

After matching a franchise record last season with 96 regular-season victories and getting within one win of a World Series berth, the bar has been set higher, Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns acknowledged.

“I think we’re all aware that going into the second half we have to play better if we want to accomplish ultimately what we’re here to do,” Stearns said. “There’s no hiding from that.”

The good news for the Brewers is the rest of the NL Central is saying the same thing. Of the five clubs, Pittsburgh was the only winner on Sunday, and fewer games (4 1/2) separate last-place Cincinnati and first-place Chicago than separate the first- and second-place teams in any of the other five divisions.

The Brewers are now a half-game back of the 47-43 Cubs.

“Look, we need to get contributions all across the roster. That’s the bottom line,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “I think we’ve had some great performances in the first half, as indicated by [sending five players to] the All-Star Game, but we have to get contributions deeper into the roster. Big contributions. That’s the second half for me.”

That starts with the pitching. Including Chase Anderson's four innings on Sunday, Brewers starters rank 12th of 15 National League teams with a 4.82 ERA. Last year, they were fifth in the NL at the break with a 3.87 ERA. Already this season, nine different pitchers have made multiple starts for the Brewers, matching the number from all of last season.

Brewers relievers have fared slightly better, with a 4.39 ERA. That unit ranked seventh in the NL entering Sunday’s slate.

The Brewers expect to get veteran Gio Gonzalez back in a few weeks from a left shoulder injury -- he is scheduled to begin a Minor League rehabilitation assignment Wednesday -- but Stearns is also open to acquiring pitching by the July 31 Trade Deadline.

“I’d say we’re always motivated to try and improve the team this time of year,” Stearns said. “We’re still in evaluative mode a little bit. It has been an inconsistent first half, and I think we’re still making sure we fully understand what we have here. And then we’ll look to make the appropriate decisions from an external standpoint.”

Unlike years past, July 31 is a hard deadline to make trades this year. Might that generate more movement in the next three weeks?

“I think there’s been a lot of speculation about that,” Stearns said. “We’re all trying to model out how we think that might play out. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a great deal of activity leading up to the Deadline because everyone knows that’s the firm date this year.”

The Brewers’ second-half needs don’t end with the pitching. Aguilar, who was heading to the All-Star Game himself a year ago, was among the hitters who endured a miserable first half. Ditto third baseman Travis Shaw, whose slump led to a demotion to Triple-A San Antonio. The Brewers didn’t have the same choice with Aguilar because he is out of options.

But the final series offered some hope. Aguilar went 6-for-10 in three games against the Pirates with three home runs, including a solo shot in the fifth inning Sunday and a two-run homer in the seventh. Hiura’s two-run home run came an inning later, in the eighth.

“Our record was better [last year at the break] but our standing was probably similar,” said Christian Yelich, the Brewers’ first-half MVP who missed Sunday’s finale with a bad back. “We didn’t necessarily finish the first half last year on the highest of notes, either. But I think we gave ourselves a chance to compete in the second half and down the stretch, and that’s really all you ask for. … If we really want to win this thing and get back to where we were last year we’re going to have to play better and do the things we know we’re capable of.”

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.