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In sharp relief: Intense Crew buoyed by bullpen

With Brewers in thick of race, rejuvenated K-Rod leading strong 'pen corps

There's a new team getting attention in the National League Central arms race. It's the Brewers, who remain the biggest surprise in the early season, if not currently the most popular.

"We were a nice team when we won 74 games," general manager Doug Melvin said Monday. "Everybody liked us then."

With Carlos Gomez replacing Ryan Braun as the lightning rod, the Brewers were in the news after a bench-clearing fracas with the Pirates on Sunday. The debate over Gomez's bat-flipping antics overshadowed another great week for the NL Central leaders, who are looking more and more like a team that could turn the division into a four-team race all summer.

Melvin is reminded of Milwaukee's 96-win season in 2011, when the behavior of Nyjer Morgan and Prince Fielder became targets for unhappy opponents. Perhaps the antipathy toward Gomez is a sign that opponents are starting to see the Brewers as a threat.

They should. Especially if Milwaukee keeps getting the kind of relief pitching that has played a major role in the fast start.

Entering a week of games at Miller Park against the Padres and the Cubs, the Brewers are 14-5 after winning nine of 10 games on the road. Factor in that Milwaukee has played series at Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and that success away from its temperature-controlled home is especially impressive.

You couldn't have seen that coming. But maybe we should have taken Ron Roenicke's team more seriously back in Spring Training, especially given how well its bullpen pitched last season.

Power arms are the NL Central's calling card, especially those that reside in the bullpen. The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds get a lot of attention for their relievers, but the Brewers quietly had the third-lowest bullpen ERA in the NL last year, and so far they've been even better this season.

Just consider what they did over the weekend at PNC Park.

After getting pounded 11-2 on Thursday, the Brewers won three straight over the Bucs, including a 14-inning war of wills on Sunday. The key to those 5-3, 8-7 and 3-2 victories was the post-John Axford bullpen, with guys like Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg and Zach Duke doing excellent work behind bargain-priced closer Francisco Rodriguez.

Don't overlook K-Rod. The guy who became an overnight sensation for the Angels with his wipeout slider in the 2002 World Series is doing a great job at age 32. He's converted all seven save opportunities this season.

Melvin gives Roenicke credit for making a smart decision at the end of Spring Training. Jim Henderson had been projected as the closer, with Rodriguez signed to a one-year, $3.25 million deal in February to add experience and depth. But a troubling spring led to an Arizona audible.

"Henderson's velocity was down, and we made the decision coming out of Spring Training to give him some time to get it back," Melvin said. "Ron sat down with Jim and talked, said he was going to make a switch with the closing role to give [him] some time. ... His velocity is back up now, and I'm sure he'll get some saves, too. It's hard to go with one guy all year ... [but] K-Rod has been real good. His velocity isn't what it was, but the other day he just matched Goose Gossage in [career] saves. Goose is in the Hall of Fame, right?"

With saves in all three weekend wins, Rodriguez ran his career total to 311, one more than Gossage. So until further notice, Henderson is part of the setup group, which thanks to Smith -- acquired from Kansas City for Nori Aoki -- and Thornburg, a converted starter, is helping Milwaukee's bullpen become the equal of those that were strengths for playoff teams in St. Louis and Pittsburgh last year.

In the three weekend games against the Pirates, the Brewers' relievers allowed only two runs in 14 2/3 innings. Their hitters, meanwhile, left All-Star closer Jason Grilli with a pair of blown save opportunities while scoring six runs in 14 innings off Pittsburgh's bullpen.

Advantage, Brew Crew.

Smith and Thornburg are the type of converted starters with whom the Bucs have built their powerful bullpens. Both were in the running for rotation spots but the late signing of Matt Garza allowed Roenicke to move them to the bullpen.

Thornburg's velocity attracted attention throughout the Minor Leagues, but Smith is something of a late bloomer. Traded from the Angels to the Royals in a deal involving Alberto Callaspo in 2010, he was backed up behind prospects Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, John Adam and Yordano Ventura in Kansas City's system system a couple years ago, but he has developed into a very intriguing pitcher.

Smith's four-seam fastball has averaged 93.4 mph this season, according to Brooks Baseball, and he mixes it with an 89 mph sinker. But his slider has been a revelation. Smith throws it about 25 percent of the time and hasn't given up any hits on it in his first 10 appearances.

"He gets a lot of swings and misses with his breaking ball," Melvin said. "That was a tough trade for us to make. Aoki was a popular player here, and a leadoff man. Those guys are tough to find. But we really think Smith is going to be a good pitcher."

Thornburg, whose fastball is averaging almost 95 mph, throws his changeup more than most relievers, and why not? He gets an average separation of 11 mph between his four-seam fastball and the change, which is especially effective in big spots, when the hitter is in a high-stakes situation.

There could be a lot of those this season, and maybe some more angry opponents.

Melvin says he can see how Gomez ruffles some feathers. But he says he plays with emotions and quirks like a lot of other players before him.

"Was Mark 'The Bird' Fidrych showing up hitters when he talked to the ball and did all that?" Melvin asked. "Was Al Hrabosky showing up hitters when he jumped up and down on the mound? … Carlos says he doesn't mind pitchers celebrating when they strike him out, and he strikes out a lot. I think you have to be careful not to do too much to change a guy who plays with the intensity and emotion that Carlos does."

And if opponents keep complaining about the Brewers?

"If it leads to 96 wins, sure," Melvin said. "We'll take it."

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
Read More: Milwaukee Brewers, Will Smith, Carlos Gomez, Zach Duke, Francisco Rodriguez, Tyler Thornburg, Jim Henderson