After going all-in for 2011—trades for Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke depleted an already sparse farm system—the Brewers had to be shaken by their start to the season. Injuries, OBP problems and bullpen meltdowns contributed to a 13--19 start in which the club averaged fewer than four runs per game and was nearly no-hit by the Cardinals' Jaime Garcia on May 6.
Enter Yovani Gallardo. Reeling himself from a monthlong stretch in which he'd failed to have a quality start in five tries while running up an 8.89 ERA, Gallardo followed Garcia by taking his own no-hitter into the eighth on May 7. That performance kicked off a stretch of six quality starts in seven outings, games in which the Brewers went 6--1. The big righty's work has anchored a 25--9 run that was capped by a sweep of the Cardinals over the weekend, helping push the Brewers into first place in the NL Central.
The change has been all about run prevention. Milwaukee has allowed just 3.4 runs per game since May 7. Gallardo's excellence has been matched by Marcum's (2.68 ERA, an 83-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio). And after starting the season on the DL with a cracked rib, Greinke—whose 4.69 ERA doesn't come close to telling the story of how well he's pitched—has made eight starts, struck out 60 and walked just seven. With the two newcomers pounding the strike zone, the Brewers have changed their staff profile dramatically. A year after walking 582 men, second highest in the majors, they're on pace to walk just 454, their lowest total in a full season since 1992.
Of late, it's the bullpen that has come through. Since the Brewers bottomed out in early May, their relievers have a 2.68 ERA in 84 innings pitched. LaTroy Hawkins (0.59 ERA) hasn't allowed an earned run in that time, closer John Axford (2.97) just two. Eight of Milwaukee's first 13 losses were charged to the bullpen; just four of its last 14 have been. After starting the season 4--7 in one-run games, the club is 10--4 since.
If the Brewers are going to make it back to October, though, it will be on the strength of their bats. They were crippled to start the season, with both catcher Jonathan Lucroy and rightfielder Corey Hart opening the season on the DL. The three-man core of Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder—each once again having All-Star-caliber campaigns—couldn't carry the weight of OBP sinks Carlos Gomez, Yuniesky Betancourt and the abysmal replacements behind the plate and in rightfield. Milwaukee didn't get its projected starting lineup onto the field until April 27; a week later the team began its 25--9 run.
The Brewers' poor start can be attributed almost entirely to playing without a full roster. Their lack of depth is a challenge, not just in fighting through injuries, but in creating hopes of in-season improvement—they have little in the way of prospects to deal. Their healthy run, though, has gotten them back to where they were in December: cofavorites to win the NL Central.
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Remember 0--6? The Red Sox dropped every game on an opening-week road trip and had the locals up in arms about the prospects for a long and disastrous season. Thanks in part to a sweep at Yankee Stadium (where they are 6--0 this year), the Sox are on a nine-game winning streak and have won 37 of their last 53. It's all about the offense: Boston leads the AL in runs, batting average, OBP, OPS and doubles. Adrian Gonzalez is an MVP candidate with 60 RBIs, while David Ortiz continues to stave off decline at 35 with a .325/.395/.624 line. And since a .155 April, Carl Crawford has been his old self, batting .303 with 16 extra-base hits, as the Red Sox have averaged six runs a game in May and June. Even with concerns about the rotation, this is the best team in baseball.
MATT SULLIVAN/REUTERS (GALLARDO)
SALVATION ARM After a slow start, Gallardo has anchored a Brewers staff that has allowed 3.4 runs a game since May 7.