Brewers turn it around by staying the course
Club's refusal to panic after slow start leads to nine-game win streak
Maybe the most important thing Brewers manager Ron Roenicke and his staff did during a 2-8 start was prevent the clubhouse environment from getting toxic. Some of that attitude is a tribute to Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and other veteran players who made sure that players remained accountable to one another. Some of it is because of the young players, especially 23-year-old shortstop Jean Segura, who brought energy to the ballpark every single day.
Still, it's the manager who must demand the same effort every single day regardless of the score or the record. He must convince players to continue to play as a cohesive unit and to believe things will turn around. Even when the Brewers were 2-8, even when they were going 32 innings without scoring, Roenicke got his players to believe in the bigger picture.
"Ron has a calm demeanor and good relationships with the players," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "He talks to them constantly. I don't think he had a team meeting or anything like that, but he and the coaches are always talking to the players and working to get better."
And then sometimes, it just all turns around. Just like that. From lousy to unbeatable in an instant.
For the Brewers, it happened on April 14, when Ryan Braun came to bat with a man on in the eighth inning of a game in St. Louis. The Brewers trailed, 3-0, their scoreless streak at 32 innings.
Six outs from dropping to 2-9, the Brewers got a two-run homer from Braun. Suddenly, they were alive. They tied the game in the ninth and won it on a Jonathan Lucroy home run in the 10th for a 4-3 victory. They've won nine in a row since and gotten to within a half-game of first place in the National League Central.
During the winning streak, they've scored almost six runs per game despite a .248 batting average. They're doing it with home runs and with stolen bases. They're just 10th in the NL in ERA. But they're finding ways to win.
"Ron has an aggressive style," Melvin said. "I'm more from the Earl Weaver school of playing for the three-run home run, but that's not Ron. We led the league in stolen bases and home runs last year, and we're [hitting a lot of homers and stealing a lot of bases] again this season. That doesn't happen very often."
The Brewers are also doing it with Melvin's overhauled bullpen compiling a 1.21 ERA during the streak. When closer John Axford had a couple of rough outings, Roenicke gave the job to Jim Henderson, who spent 10 years in the Minor Leagues and began the season with all of six career Major League appearances.
Somehow, all the pieces are fitting together. The starting pitching has been solid. And aggressive. One of the things Roenicke stressed in Spring Training was throwing strikes and being aggressive. The Brewers have issued the fewest walks in the NL after giving up the sixth most in 2012.
What's probably the most remarkable part of this story is that the Brewers have been hit hard by injuries. They began Spring Training with three first basemen: Corey Hart, Mat Gamel and Taylor Green.
All three were lost in Spring Training, leaving Roenicke to divide the playing time among four players, including Yuniesky Betancourt, who was signed a week before Opening Day.
"One thing that might have helped us is seeing other teams with injuries," Melvin said. "The Cardinals lost Jason Motte and Rafael Furcal. They didn't use those injuries as an excuse. The Yankees had a lot of injuries, but their expectations didn't change. Injuries are an opportunity for someone to step up. It's a chance for your staff and your scouting department to show you've got some organizational depth."
Along the way, the Brewers have caught some breaks from opponent mistakes, but they've also shown resilience in coming from behind and in doing the basic. For instance, they start fast.
They've outscored the opposition, 17-3, in the first inning and had a streak of 13 straight games without allowing a first-inning run broken on Tuesday. Right-hander Kyle Lohse, who was signed late in Spring Training, has been a strike-throwing machine (two walks, 17 strikeouts). So has Marco Estrada (four walks, 25 strikeouts).
Segura, who was acquired in last summer's Zack Greinke trade with the Angels, looks like a future star. And 27-year-old Carlos Gomez has been tremendous.
These Brewers are a lot like Melvin's other Milwaukee teams and like the playoff teams he constructed while in charge of the Rangers. They're a solid team, a team that throws strikes and hits home runs.
In a division many people thought would belong to the Reds and Cardinals, the nine-game winning streak has given the Brewers a shot of confidence that they, too, will be in the mix.
"Successful teams are the ones that don't panic," Melvin said. "Once you panic, the players panic. I think we have enough good players who understand this. We still felt we were a good club. We've still got areas where we need to get better, but we've gotten things turned around."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.