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Despite adversity, Crew in 1st place at break

MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

MILWAUKEE -- Junior Guerra got hurt three innings into Opening Day and is still searching for his velocity. Jonathan Villar has slumped all season. Ryan Braun and Eric Thames followed big Aprils with a May and June marred by nagging injuries. Neftali Feliz flamed out as the closer.

If you made a list at the start of the season of the Brewers' five most significant players, there is a chance you would have come up with that quintet. All endured downers of a first half, and yet the allegedly-rebuilding Brewers will return from the All-Star break with their widest lead to date in the National League Central -- 5 1/2 games ahead of the defending World Series champion Cubs and Cardinals -- while winning nine of their final 11 before the break..

MILWAUKEE -- Junior Guerra got hurt three innings into Opening Day and is still searching for his velocity. Jonathan Villar has slumped all season. Ryan Braun and Eric Thames followed big Aprils with a May and June marred by nagging injuries. Neftali Feliz flamed out as the closer.

If you made a list at the start of the season of the Brewers' five most significant players, there is a chance you would have come up with that quintet. All endured downers of a first half, and yet the allegedly-rebuilding Brewers will return from the All-Star break with their widest lead to date in the National League Central -- 5 1/2 games ahead of the defending World Series champion Cubs and Cardinals -- while winning nine of their final 11 before the break..

Here's a look at how they got to this place:

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What went right
As owner Mark Attanasio put it, general manager David Stearns hit for a high batting average in his offseason moves. Feliz did not work out, but the addition of left-handed bats at first base (Thames) and third (Travis Shaw), plus the continued development of younger hitters like Domingo Santana, boosted the Brewers' production by nearly a run per game. The Brewers finished the first half fourth in the NL in runs scored.

For the pitching staff, Jimmy Nelson has stepped forward in his age-28 season to lead a starting rotation beset by some significant injuries. And All-Star closer Corey Knebel, with at least one strikeout in all 43 of his appearances this season, helped prevent a full bullpen meltdown when Feliz faltered.

"Reading up on what this team was, I kind of expected this," said Shaw. "Everybody was saying, 'Just kind of average, not very good, a little bit below .500.' I knew this wasn't the year their vision was planned, but I knew we were going to be pretty good. I started believing in May that we were going to be better than what people thought."

One other thing went right: The Brewers are in the right division. At 50-41, they are the only NL Central team with a winning record at the break.

Video: Brewers top 10 plays from first half of the season

What went wrong
Second baseman Villar slumped to a .288 on-base percentage after setting career highs for offensive production across the board last season. Thames fought through leg tightness in May and June that sapped his power for a time. Guerra missed six weeks with a calf injury and is still working to rediscover his fastball velocity, and fellow starting pitcher Chase Anderson's brilliant first half ended early because of a left oblique strain that will keep him sidelined at least into August. In the bullpen, the Brewers struck out on Feliz, who was released in June.

Also troubling moving forward is the status of Braun, who did not play the Brewers' first-half finale out of an abundance of caution after re-aggravating the left calf injury that sidelined him for most of May and June. Manager Craig Counsell conceded he cannot be sure how much Braun will contribute in the second half.

What we learned
That the Brewers can score runs and win games without Braun in the lineup. They were 15-12 in May and 15-14 in June with Braun mostly on the DL. It is surely a better lineup with Braun in the middle, but at least the Brewers know they can compete in the second half if he misses more time.

First half top position player
Shaw has quietly driven the offense (.938 OPS, 138 wRC+ to lead the team's regulars), though Thames' overall numbers are just a tick behind.

"He's provided a lot of balance to a lineup that last year was pretty right-handed-heavy," Counsell said. "So he's been a great fit. The reason Travis was attractive from the beginning was, 'Left-handed, middle of the lineup.' That's something we had been lacking for a while."

First half top pitcher
Nelson took a big step forward, building a case as an All-Star snub by going 8-4 with a 3.30 ERA in a team-high 109 innings. Most impressive is that he has cut his walks per nine innings almost in half, from 4.3 to 2.2.

"My stuff's not that much different," said Nelson, who credited myriad factors for his improvement, including more first-pitch strikes, a better gap between his fastball and offspeed stuff, and help from catchers Manny Pina and Stephen Vogt. "I don't want to say 'comfortable,' but it's like I'm more relaxed. I'm not trying to force good results. I'm just trying to execute pitches."

First half top rookie
It is between Jesus Aguilar, whose veteran approach comes from playing big games over the years in the Venezuelan Winter League, and Pina, who has helped the Brewers move relatively seamlessly into their first season without Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado. Pina has been solid, ranking fifth among NL catchers at 1.5 Wins Above Replacement, per Fangraphs.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Milwaukee Brewers