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Impressive pitching makes Brewers the real deal

Dominance of rotation, bullpen key behind Milwaukee's hot start to season

Sometime around the end of Spring Training, it began to dawn on a lot of the Brewers that they had a chance to be a really good baseball team. To put it another way -- why not?

For instance, right fielder Ryan Braun kept looking at the quality and depth of the starting rotation and wondered how many teams had more.

"Our six, seven and eight starters are better than we've had some years," he said at one point.

He liked the Crew's bullpen, too, figuring it might again be the strength of the team. As he kept looking at his club, as he weighed this and that against the other four teams in the National League Central, he figured the Brewers just might have a chance.

We're lucky to live in a time when the talent level between baseball's top 20 or so teams isn't dramatic. So, for instance, if a team pitches well, if it sweats the small stuff and doesn't make a bunch of knucklehead plays, it can stay relevant.

There was an assortment of questions about the Brewers' lineup, beginning with Braun himself. How good will he be in this next chapter of his career? Would his injured thumb heal completely? Braun waved off those questions. He had zero doubt that he was still capable of being what he'd always been.

If Aramis Ramirez could stay healthy, if Carlos Gomez continued to play at a high level, if Jean Segura and Khris Davis kept getting better, the Brewers might just have enough to hang with the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds.

That the Brewers were consensus picks to finish fourth in the NL Central meant nothing. To have expectations come from within allows players to relax and let their talents take over.

So here we are two weeks into the regular season -- OK, it's just a tiny sample size -- and the Brewers are one of the really cool stories in the game. They ran their record to 10-2 Sunday afternoon with a 4-1 victory over the Pirates. If you're keeping track, that's nine in a row.

They've done it with a simple formula -- pitching. How's that for simple?

Their 1.80 ERA is the best in the big leagues. That's a 0.82 ERA for the bullpen and a 2.22 ERA for the rotation.

In 12 games, they've had nine quality starts, including a tremendous 8 2/3-inning performance from Kyle Lohse on Sunday.

Offensively, they're in the middle of the pack. They hit home runs and steal bases, but so far all the various pieces haven't clicked.

They're holding their breath that Braun's right thumb will allow him to continue to play and produce. This flying start has called attention to manager Ron Roenicke, and his low-key, no-nonsense style.

He has assembled a terrific coaching staff, and if there's a manager and bunch of coaches more respected by their players, it would be difficult to find.

As the weather begins to warm up, this has the feel of a great baseball summer in Milwaukee. And that's one of the best parts of this deal.

Milwaukee is one of the country's great baseball towns. The Brewers haven't drawn fewer than 2.5 million fans to Miller Park the last seven seasons. Three times, they cracked 3 million.

Brewers owner Mark Attanasio has answered that support by upgrading the roster (and payroll) year after year. In the last two offseasons, Attanasio has allowed general manager Doug Melvin to add two quality veteran arms in Lohse and Matt Garza.

Perhaps that's the formula for winning right there. To mix those guys in with two high-end homegrown guys, Wily Peralta and Yovani Gallardo -- and 2010 waiver claim Marco Estrada -- might just be the perfect blend.

This offseason was like a lot of others for the Crew in that they waited patiently for the market to calm down and for the prices to get to a point with which they were comfortable.

In the end, the work was impressive. Melvin added Garza to the rotation, Francisco Rodriguez to the back of the bullpen and veterans Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds for platoon roles at first base.

Melvin also added left-hander Will Smith to the bullpen, acquiring him from the Royals for outfielder Nori Aoki. In seven appearances, Smith hasn't allowed a run.

At the moment, it's all working. Great pitching. Gomez and Segura making one defensive play after another. And when the Brewers need a hit, someone has stepped up and gotten it.

It felt like old times at Miller Park Sunday afternoon with 32,152 showing up to give their boys some energy to feed off of. We'll know more about their staying power as everyone settles into the grind of a season. If nothing else, the Brewers have gotten our attention. They appear to be the real deal.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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