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Brewers giving fans reason to be excited

1st-place Crew off to best 50-game start in franchise history
MLB.com @williamfleitch

I'm not sure there's a more underrated fanbase in Major League Baseball than the one in Milwaukee -- one of the smallest markets in the game. The Brewers play two hours away from Wrigley Field, in the same division as the rivaled but deeply adored Cubs, and perpetually in their shadow.

The Cubs have Bill Murray and Eddie Vedder and Vince Vaughn. The White Sox have Barack Obama. The Brewers have Kato Kaelin.

I'm not sure there's a more underrated fanbase in Major League Baseball than the one in Milwaukee -- one of the smallest markets in the game. The Brewers play two hours away from Wrigley Field, in the same division as the rivaled but deeply adored Cubs, and perpetually in their shadow.

The Cubs have Bill Murray and Eddie Vedder and Vince Vaughn. The White Sox have Barack Obama. The Brewers have Kato Kaelin.

The Brewers have never won a championship and have only reached the World Series once. They've only made the postseason twice in the past 35 years. It's tough to be a Brewers fan.

But you wouldn't know it from attending a game at Miller Park. First thing, the place is nearly always packed: Milwaukee is perpetually in the top 10 in attendance despite its market size and proximity to Chicago. Fans are tailgating in the massive parking lot hours before first pitch, like they do at a college football game, but one that happens 81 times a year.

Everyone is friendly and welcoming and cheerful, taking a cue from Patron Saint Bob Uecker, desperately wanting their team to win but not willing to give up a good time if it doesn't end up turning out that way. 

Video: ARI@MIL: Brewers on team's 7-run inning in 9-2 win

The Brewers have the sort of fanbase that you hope someday finds the on-field success their dedication deserves, that they get the championship payoff for their years of investment the way, say, Cubs fans, Red Sox fans and Astros fans did. It's possible that this is what Milwaukee fans have been waiting for, and that the team is just getting started.

With a 9-2 win over collapsing Arizona on Wednesday afternoon to complete a three-game sweep, the Brewers raised their record to 31-19 -- the best in the National League and their best 50-game start ever. Milwaukee is on a full-blown heater right now, and they have a three-game lead in the NL Central, one of the Majors' toughest divisions.

This shouldn't be a huge surprise. Remember, the Brewers finished in second place last year, one game out of the second NL Wild Card spot. They had one of the most active, efficient offseasons, taking advantage of the league-wide free agency freeze to grab Lorenzo Cain and trade for Christian Yelich in a span of a couple of hours. They have a highly intelligent, deeply motivated front office that's displayed a provable skill of being able to find outlier talent in unusual places. And they have Josh Hader, who just struck me out twice while I was typing this sentence.

Video: MIL@MIN: Hader strikes out 6 for final 6 outs

But 31-19? Smashing other NL fools like it's nothing? What has gotten into Milwaukee? Are the Brewers really the best team in the NL? More to the point: Are they even the best team in the NL Central?

What's most fascinating about the Brewers is that it's not their offense that's leading them. The high-profile acquisitions of Cain and Yelich were supposed to provide the massive boost to the lineup (and their defense, of course), and while both have been good, the offense on the whole has sagged, particularly Orlando Arcia, Manny Pina and Jonathan Villar.

Eric Thames was off to a hot start before going on disabled list (torn UCL in his left thumb), but Domingo Santana, who was supposed to be their up-and-coming star, has taken a step back. Ryan Braun should return on Thursday against the Mets, but other than Jesus Aguilar's breakthrough and Travis Shaw's consistency, the Brewers' offense hasn't been what the club had hoped.

Video: MIL@ARI: Brewers belt 4 homers that total 1,675 feet

Milwaukee's major questions entering the season related to its rotation, which has been average and unspectacular. (Remember when the Brewers were in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes?) Junior Guerra has been terrific, but everyone else has been basically just fine, which is an improvement over what you might have expected with the injuries to Wade Miley, Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson (who just returned last week) and Zach Davies (who returns on Thursday), but hardly the sort of thing you build championship contenders around. The rotation is ... fine, which is not usually enough.

However, Milwaukee's bullpen is so ridiculous right now that you have to start treating games against them as if they end after the fifth inning. Hader has grabbed the headlines, and with good reason. He's striking out two batters an inning and is somehow 15th in the NL in strikeouts even though he's a relief pitcher. (Hader has more strikeouts than Darvish!)

But it's not just Hader. Jeremy Jeffress has arguably been better than Hader, with fewer strikeouts, having given up just one earned run in 25 2/3 innings. Corey Knebel (now back from his own injury), Matt Albers, Dan Jennings, Taylor Williams ... you don't want to face any of these guys. (Top prospect Brandon Woodruff is in the pen now too.) Milwaukee's 4-2 win over Arizona was illustrative of how the club works. Anderson handed the Brewers a 3-2 lead after six innings, and then Albers, Jeffress and Knebel shut the D-backs down, allowing just one baserunner in three innings to secure the win. (And they didn't even have to use Hader.)

Is this sustainable? Maybe the bullpen won't remain this dominant, but there is considerable room for improvement in the lineup, and the rotation has enough depth that one can see how it can keep putting together modest quality starts and then get out of the bullpen's way. And there's more help coming, either from the Minors (Milwaukee has six top 100 prospects according to MLB Pipeline) or potential acquisitions those prospects could bring it at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. The Brewers were looking for a top-of-rotation arm this offseason, and they're certainly more eager to add one now.

But the real question is: can they hold off the Cubs and Cardinals, their historical tormentors and established staples within the division? The Cubs are 7-1 against Milwaukee so far in 2018, and it's a good thing: If they were even just .500 against them, they'd be 10 games back. (Yikes.) They still have 11 games against the Cubs, including six in September. The Brewers have made this run while they've had a myriad of injuries, played some of the NL's best teams and been mostly on the road. They're now back home, getting healthier and clicking in every aspect. The Brewers are just getting started. The best is yet to come.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.