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Shaw, Knebel helped Crew make progress in '17

MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

MILWAUKEE -- Ryan Braun hit his 300th career home run, Travis Shaw excelled amid off-the-field stress and Hernan Perez pitched. Orlando Arcia and Keon Broxton made two of the best game-ending defensive plays you'll see. Robin and Rollie and the 1982 Crew even returned to town to celebrate the 35-year anniversary of the Brewers winning the American League.

All of those highlights helped define the Brewers' 2017, but didn't quite make the cut for our list of the five biggest storylines from a surprisingly competitive season:

MILWAUKEE -- Ryan Braun hit his 300th career home run, Travis Shaw excelled amid off-the-field stress and Hernan Perez pitched. Orlando Arcia and Keon Broxton made two of the best game-ending defensive plays you'll see. Robin and Rollie and the 1982 Crew even returned to town to celebrate the 35-year anniversary of the Brewers winning the American League.

All of those highlights helped define the Brewers' 2017, but didn't quite make the cut for our list of the five biggest storylines from a surprisingly competitive season:

1. Amazing April

General manager David Stearns brought first baseman Eric Thames home from the Korea Baseball Organization via free agency and acquired third baseman Shaw in a trade because he wanted some left-handed balance for the lineup. The players responded with 31 home runs apiece to tie for the team lead, including 11 from Thames in a remarkable opening month. Thames' 11 homers and 28 runs were Brewers records, catching the attention -- for good and for bad -- of the baseball world. After he hit two homers in an April 24 game against the Reds, Thames responded to those whispering he must be "on something" to be performing so well, and produced one of the year's most memorable lines.

Video: Thames sets Brewers record with 11 homers in April

"I went the long way around to come back here," Thames said. "This whole thing is surprising me, as well. I really have no goals for this year. I wasn't trying to break any records or set anything. I just wanted to apply what I learned in Korea to see how it would fare here. I'm shocked at all the results. I'm just here to play ball, and do my best to stay healthy, and stretch as much as I can.

"So, yeah, if people keep thinking I'm on stuff, I'll be here every day. I have lots of blood and urine."

2. Putting the K in Knebel

Corey Knebel had two career saves and had never made an Opening Day roster entering 2017, but that was about to change. His season started with a record-setting streak of 45 straight appearances with at least one strikeout, breaking Aroldis Chapman's record to begin a season (37 games for the Reds to begin '14) and Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter's single-season mark (39 games for the Cubs in 1977).

Video: PIT@MIL: Knebel strikes out Bell to set relief record

Along the way, Knebel took over as Brewers closer and was Milwaukee's lone representative at the All-Star Game (though he did not pitch). He finished with 39 saves and a franchise-record 126 strikeouts in relief, shattering Julio Machado's previous mark (98 in 1991).

3. Leading at the break

Plenty went wrong for the Brewers in the first half. Star left fielder Braun and Opening Day starter Junior Guerra endured lengthy stints on the disabled list, and Guerra was eventually demoted to the Minor Leagues. Neftali Feliz flamed out as closer and was released. Thames fell back to reality after his insane April.

And yet, after winning nine of their 11 games before the All-Star break, including two of three at Yankee Stadium, the Brewers found themselves in first place in the National League Central, 5 1/2 games ahead of a Cubs team treading water. It marked only the fifth time in 49 years as a franchise that the Brewers led their division at the break.

Video: MLB Tonight discusses the first place Brewers

"I don't know how many people would have believed it, but here we are," Shaw said.

Asked about those Cubs, Shaw said, "There's more pressure on them than on us right now. They're the defending champions. We weren't supposed to be here, so we're kind of playing with house money right now. At the same time, with a 5 1/2-game lead, we expect to keep that position and finish like we are right now."

4. Down goes Nelson

Shaw's expectations were dashed, of course, but the Brewers didn't go down without a fight. They swept the Cubs in three weekend games at Wrigley Field in early September while surrendering three total runs. It should have been an uplifting visit, but the Brewers' spirits were dampened by the loss of top starting pitcher Jimmy Nelson, who jammed his right shoulder diving back to first base in the series opener.

Initially, Nelson and the Brewers were hopeful he'd avoided significant injury, but a day later came some very bad news. Nelson had a torn labrum and was not only finished for the season, but would miss "a chunk," as Stearns put it, of 2018.

Video: MIL@CHC: Brewers give an update on Nelson's injury

In a breakthrough season at age 28, Nelson went 12-6 with a 3.49 ERA. He finished one K shy of the 10th 200-strikeout season in Brewers history.

"It's definitely tough, but I know I'm going to do all I can do physically and mentally to get back," Nelson said. "Not just to where I was, but better."

5. Four games in September

The Brewers were eliminated from postseason contention on the next-to-last day of the regular season, when they blew a 6-0 lead in a 7-6 loss to the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. But Milwaukee's young roster got a taste of what the postseason feels like one week earlier during a charged, four-game series against the Cubs at Miller Park.

The Cubs asserted their division dominance by winning three of the four games, the first three of which went to a 10th inning and were immediately filed among the most compelling regular-season games ever played at Miller Park. The Cubs won the first two of those thrillers before the Brewers rallied twice to take Game 3, tying it on Arcia's home run in the ninth inning and winning on Shaw's walk-off in the 10th. Both homers came off Cubs closer Wade Davis, who had not blown a save all year.

Video: Must C Clutch: Brewers rally twice, walk off vs. Cubs

After losing the series finale, it was Wild Card or bust. The "bust" came on the season's penultimate day.

"I feel like we gave [the Cubs] a run for their money," Thames said. "We were like a bunch of pirates and hooligans. It was cool being a part of that, like, 'We don't care who you are, we'll just play the game.' Early on in the year, we knew we had a shot."

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

 

Milwaukee Brewers