What's going on with the Brewers?
Although it once looked like Milwaukee might just run away with the National League Central, its division lead has shrunk recently due to a prolonged slump prior to the All-Star break. A recent sweep of the Reds has opened up a little breathing room for the Brew Crew, but there are still some issues that the team needs to address if it plans on staying in first place through September.
The Brewers' hitting is their calling card, and Jonathan Lucroy continues to look like an MVP candidate with a .312/.382/.500 slash line to go with great defense and leadership behind the plate. Scotter Gennett has provided surprising production at the keystone, but he's currently day-to-day with a quad injury. Then there's Jean Segura, who has struggled mightily this season after a incredible breakout 2013. Beyond the Box Score thinks that the shortstop should consider going back to not pulling the ball.
Even with Segura mired in a season-long slump, however, the Brewers score plenty of runs. Preventing them has been another story. Kyle Lohse has been terrific at the top of the rotation, but the rest of the starters have been average at best, and Marco Estrada was giving up so many home runs that he had to be shifted to the bullpen. It would have been fascinating to see if Estrada, who has given up 27 long balls in just 114.2 innings, could challenge Bert Blyleven's MLB record of 50 home runs allowed in a single season (1986), but the Mets will have to settle for hoping that Jimmy Nelson -- the top prospect was called up to take Estrada's spot in the rotation -- isn't yet ready for the big show.
The Brewers were once carried to the postseason by a deadline trade for CC Sabathia. Could a similar deal be in the works to keep this version of Milwaukee in front of its rivals? In a division as competitive as the NL Central, sitting still at the trade deadline could be a risky proposition.
Who are these guys?
For all the riches that the Brewers have on offense this season, they have still not found a suitable replacement for Prince Fielder at first base. Right now the position is being "filled" by a platoon made up of over-the-hill veterans Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay.
Reynolds, I was surprised to learn, is only 30 years old. He seems so much older because five years ago he was one of the most exciting players in baseball. In 2009 with the Diamondbacks, Reynolds was a three-true-outcomes star with 44 home runs, 24 stolen bases, 76 walks, and a whopping 223 strikeouts. He struck out less and walked more in 2010, but a deteriorating BABIP and less power led to "only" 32 home runs and an anemic .198 batting average. That winter, Reynolds was traded to the Orioles, and he's bounced around a lot since then between teams who need a quick injection of home run power. He still walks a lot, but consistently low BABIPs have made him more of an out machine than he was in his glory years.
Overbay is a guy who is cool to look at in a Brewers uniform because he originally broke out with the team in the mid-2000s. In his prime, he was the antithesis of Reynolds. Overbay was the rare player who walked a lot without striking out a ton. The only thing holding him back from being a superstar player was a modest power stroke that saw him max out at 22 dingers in 2006 with Toronto. Like Reynolds, on the other hand, Overbay has seen his BABIP and power decrease as he grows older. As a 37-year-old with an isolated power of .109, he's only very useful to teams like this year's Brewers and last year's Yankees that have no other options at first base. Overbay has had a really nice career, though.
Who's on the mound?
Thursday: Dillon Gee vs. Matt Garza
Neither horrible nor amazing, Garza is your typical fastball/slider starter who has been bouncing around the majors for a while now. Save for one awesome summer with the Cubs in 2011, Garza has always been good enough to fit in the middle of a rotation, but never great enough to be an ace. ERAs between 4.00 and 3.50 are the norm with him, and he'll sometimes tease with a brilliant start before getting slapped back to reality. That has been the case this month for Garza, who in back-to-back starts shutout the Reds and held the Phillies hitless for six innings. In his first start after the All-Star break, though, Garza was shelled by the Nationals for five runs in just one third of an inning.
Gee has also had flirtations with brilliance over the years that are mixed in with mediocrity. In fact, during his last start in San Diego, he experienced both at once. On one hand, Gee assuaged my concerns about his sliding strikeout rate by punching out eight Padres in five innings. On the other hand, he also gave up four runs on two home runs. It will be much tougher to avoid the long ball in Milwaukee, so hopefully Gee can be more precise with his pitches and lead the Mets to a win while boosting his trade value.
Friday: Zack Wheeler vs. Yovani Gallardo
Back in 2007 when he was 21 years old, Gallardo hurled 101 strikeouts and 37 walks in 110.1 innings to secure "ace of the future' status in the Milwaukee organization. After an injury-derailed 2008 and a 94-walk 2009, the Mexican right-hander finally delivered the goods in 2010 with a 3.02 FIP and 4.5 fWAR. He appeared to have a bright career in front of him with another two solid seasons in 2011 and 2012, but Gallardo's strikeout rate dropped from 24 percent down to 19 percent in 2013, and this season it's down to 18 percent. Continued durability and the lowest walk rate of his career are good signs for Gallardo in 2014, but right now he looks more like a mid-rotation starter than the anchor of a staff.
That last sentence sounds like something we could be saying about Wheeler one day if he doesn't blossom into a player reflecting his former prospect status. He's a young fastball/slider/curve thrower and is striking out about one batter per inning like Gallardo was when he came up. Wheeler's walks have been a concern this season, but lately he's blazed through a streak of solid starts. In his last four, Wheeler has allowed exactly one run while pitching between six and seven innings. The competition hasn't been stellar over that stretch, so Milwaukee should provide a nice litmus test.
Saturday: Jon Niese vs. Wily Peralta
Peralta has taken some nice steps forward this season to improve on his promising rookie campaign of 2013. His walk rate is down more than one batter per nine innings, and his ground ball rate is up 3.5 percent. Those figures have helped balance Peralta's ERA at 3.58 despite an unsightly home-run-per-fly-ball rate of 15.8 percent. Back on June 11 at Citi Field, he allowed just one run against the Mets in 6.1 innings, and Peralta has been even better in his last two starts overall. Two runs allowed in 14 total innings against the Cardinals and Reds with 10 strikeouts and just two walks is nothing to sneeze at.
Niese's streak of allowing three or less runs in every start was finally broken in Seattle of all places. On Monday, he let up four runs in six innings during New York's 5-2 loss. You can excuse Niese for being a little rusty on his first start back from the disabled list, but against Milwaukee, he'll need to be at his best. He was just that earlier this year against the Brewers. The lefty shut them down with eight strikeouts, one walk, and one run allowed in 7.2 innings of an extra-inning loss on June 12.
Sunday: Jacob deGrom vs. Jimmy Nelson
With the way Nelson has pitched in the Pacific Coast League this season, it's worth wondering why the Brewers waited for Estrada to completely unravel before calling up the promising young right-hander. Nelson struck out more than a batter per innings for the Nashville Sounds and posted a 1.46 ERA in 111 innings, so it appears that he's ready for the show. His first major league start in July was tough sledding (six runs allowed in less than five innings against St. Louis), but he rebounded to pitch a quality start against the Reds in his last time out.
deGrom made it three straight magnificent starts with his latest performance in Seattle. The young right-hander now has seven innings pitched, at least seven strikeouts, and one run allowed or fewer in each of his last three outings. He's finally starting to realize the command that made him so successful in the minor leagues, and his strikeout rate is the highest it's been since Class A. That strikeout rate is well worth watching, because it could determine deGrom's future success in the majors. With the way he's been pitching, every time he and his flowing locks take the mound is highly anticipated.
Prediction: deGrom and Wheeler shine, allowing the Mets to earn a split.
What about some highlights?
ESPN analyst Tim Kurkjian was smoked during his first run in the famous Milwaukee Sausage Race earlier this summer.
Hank, the adorable pooch who the Brewers adopted in spring training, had a lot more fun during his Sausage Race debut.
Taylor Teagarden, in his Mets debut, hit a grand slam to lift the team to its only win over the Brewers this season.