Brewers' quick rise a statement to rivals
Facing tough opponents, club makes most of hobbled roster with 20 April wins
ST. LOUIS -- The Milwaukee Brewers had a message to send to the rest of baseball.
Consider it done.
These guys are good.
It's something the Brewers felt from the start of Spring Training, but given the missteps of the last two seasons, nobody really wanted to listen to them talk about what their message might be.
They can start talking now.
Yes, there are five months remaining in the regular season, and no, teams do not get sized for championship rings at the end of April.
But a statement can be made, and the Brewers are making themselves heard, loud and clear.
Not even a series-closing 9-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday afternoon can obscure what's transpired since Opening Day. The Brewers have equaled the best start in franchise history (20-8), and they enter May with a 5 1/2-game lead on the second-place Cardinals in the National League Central.
They have spent 27 of the first 31 days of the season in first place, moving into the top spot by themselves to stay on April 9, and they're a startling 11-2 on the road. It wasn't until June 12 and their 29th road game of the season last year that they claimed their 11th win outside of Miller Park.
This week, the Brewers won a series in St. Louis the hard way. They rallied from 3-0 deficits on both Monday and Tuesday, winning in extra innings against a team that had won 25 of the previous 37 games the two teams had played. And they did it without their Nos. 2-4 hitters -- shortstop Jean Segura, right fielder Ryan Braun and third baseman Aramis Ramirez.
"Any time you compete with these guys like we have, where it's a battle, where you have to grind it out, where you come from behind and are winning in extra innings, it gives you confidence you can beat anybody," said catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who was given the night off Tuesday. "These guys have had our number since 2011. We came in here and had to earn those wins.
"When you have your two best power hitters and an All-Star shortstop out of the lineup, and the other guys step up, it is important. They know they can get the job done. They know there are no excuses. We beat the guys over there without those three guys and myself. It shows how talented we are. We showed tenacity. That's important down the stretch. Now it's May. It is important for us not to let up."
The Brewers learned that lesson a year ago. They had a decent April, finishing the month 14-11, but they lost 22 of their first 27 games in May and never recovered in a division race that not only ended with the Cardinals on top but also saw Cincinnati and Pittsburgh claim the two NL Wild Card berths.
"The last couple years, we dug a hole with a bad start," said Braun. "We made it an emphasis from the start of Spring Training to make sure we were ready to grind it out. We challenged ourselves to move forward. [Last year] we had a nine-game winning streak, but it was not against good teams, and we were terrible in May. That's not the case this year. This month, almost every team we played was a playoff team."
This season didn't start particularly well. The Brewers opened the regular-season slate with a win at home over Atlanta but lost the next two games. Then, they took off. The Brewers went to Boston for the home opener of the defending World Series champions and completed a three-game sweep, followed by a sweep of the Phillies in Philadelphia.
"Those are two of the hardest places in baseball to win," said Braun. "That gave us a lot of confidence in what we can do."
And the Brewers haven't slowed down since. Oh, they did lose two of three to St. Louis at Miller Park from April 14-16, but they went into Busch Stadium this week and repaid the Cardinals, who have advanced to the postseason each of the last three years, even winning a World Series championship in 2011 for Tony La Russa's managerial farewell, and the NL pennant last year.
"We've been that team like they are right now, that team that gets off to the good start that sets that level of expectation that this is how it's supposed to look the rest of the year," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, whose team led the NL Central at the end of April each of the past five seasons. "That's what Milwaukee has the benefit of right now. They've got a lot of players that are going to say, 'We're not going to settle for anything less than this.'"
And that's what the Brewers were hoping they could do when they arrived in St. Louis.
They weren't physically at full strength. Braun (rib cage) and Segura (facial contusions) had already sat out Sunday's game against the Cubs in Milwaukee, and Ramirez was removed from Monday's game after being hit on the left forearm for a second time.
They were, however, mentally focused.
It paid off.
"This gives us the confidence of knowing we have the talent and ability to compete," said Lucroy.
And now the rest of baseball has been put on notice.