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Brewers lead NL Central Division halfway through season

National League pitcher Corey Knebel (46) of the Milwaukee Brewers during a media availability one day before the 2017 MLB All Star Game at Marlins Park. Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports1 / 2
New York Yankees relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman (54) pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium July 9 in Bronx, New York. Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports2 / 2

Maureen McCollum

Wisconsin Public Radio

The Milwaukee Brewers are "defying logic" this season.

A baseball team that’s in the midst of a rebuild is the No. 1 team in the National League Central Division. They’re ahead of the reigning World Series champions the Chicago Cubs by 5.5 games. And not only that, the Brewers have the second most home runs in the league.

The Brewers enter the second half of the season Friday night as they take on the Philadelphia Phillies at Miller Park. It coincides with the team’s 35th anniversary of the 1982 American League Championship, which will be celebrated at the Brewers games all weekend.

To better understand how the team got to this point halfway through the season, WPR’s Maureen McCollum spoke with Tom Haudricourt, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Brewers beat writer and two-time Wisconsin Sports Writer of the Year.

The following has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Maureen McCollum: This week, you wrote about what’s led to the Brewers success this season. One thing was the depth on the team roster. Can you elaborate on that?

Tom Haudricourt: It's really a bit unexpected, Maureen, because they're in the second full season of their rebuild, about 2.5 years in from when they originally stripped the team down from their veterans and went with younger players.

And so generally speaking, it takes a little longer than this to build the depth. But they have, particularly what Manager Craig Counsell calls his "position player group." But he calls it his position player group, and that's anybody that's not a pitcher.

Another thing that's made their depth noteworthy is most of the first half they played with only 12 position players instead of 13. Teams usually carry 13 position players and 12 pitchers, but they've carried more pitching just because of needs out of their bullpen. So it's left them with fewer guys.

The other thing that's tested their depth from that group is Ryan Braun. He missed 51 of 91 games with a leg injury.

Jonathan Villar, who was sensational as their leadoff hitter last year, has really struggled at the plate.

But they've been able to cover those two shortcomings because the other players have picked them up. So it's been a true team effort. It almost always is whenever you're playing this well.

MM: You're right, it does seem like they have really great chemistry. Like, they are a really fun team to watch this season.

TH: They are. You can tell they're having fun. That's another thing that defies logic. A lot of things in baseball do defy logic, that's been my experience over the years, especially when you consider that these players haven't been together very long. Most of them come from other organizations.

They built this roster, in great part, from waiver claims from other teams, trades and signings. Only a few players have come up through their system. So you would think that it'd take longer for these guys to bond and have this chemistry and get to know each other, and be bonded so much on and off the field.

Craig Counsell has a saying, "We enjoy each other’s company." I think that's very descriptive and very accurate. They do enjoy each other’s company

MM: What's with all the home runs this season? It seems like in past years there may be a few players who can knock it out of the park. But this year, many of the Brewers are hitting homers.  Homers. What's going on with that?

TH: It's actually emblematic of today's game of baseball. We're in a great era of home runs and strikeouts. It seems like guys are swinging from the fences more. When you do that, you strike out a lot. The Brewers lead the National League in home runs (with 138 homer runs, which is second to the American League’s Houston Astros’ 148) and are right up there in strikeouts. That's just the way they're built, and it's worked.

Sometimes when you're reliant on home runs, you can have big droughts when guys aren't hitting them. But because they've had so many players hitting home runs, it's been spread out and they scored a lot of runs doing it.

MM: Are there other moves that they've made or philosophies they've taken on this season that have gotten them to this point?

TH: They've been incredibly good at scoring in the first inning. In 91 games, they've scored 81 runs in the first inning. By far, that's the most in the majors and far more than their opponents have scored. So, they have constantly and continually worked with early leads, which takes pressure off your pitchers. You know, you give them some early runs and they're able to relax and settle down and not fret if they give up a run or two.

So, I think for a young team looking for its identity and trying to build confidence, early leads have been helpful because it's shown them that they can compete with these other teams. Not only that, but they can get ahead of them. 

It's just very interesting to watch because we keep waiting for it to stop. You know, there's no logic (to) why they're ready to play at the start of games and the other team isn't. But it's just continued, and it's a huge part of their success.

MM: Over the last few years, we've heard a lot about the Brewers rebuilding the team for the future. Are we now at this point when the future has arrived? Is this the team that the Brewers' organization has been waiting for?

TH: It got here quick. Quicker than they thought. They're definitely ahead of schedule.

They are still building for the future. They want to be good every year, not break through occasionally as they have in the past. They're in first place (in the NL Central Division) at the All Star break for only the fifth time in franchise history. That's not a tremendous amount of success over the number of years that they've been a club. So they're trying to be better more often.

But, when you do break through a little early, whether it's expected or not, you don't ask questions you just keep going for it. I don't think they'll reverse course now and start trading a bunch of their players for veterans, but I do think they'll look around at the trade deadline at the end of the month and see if there are players that can help them, without tearing apart what they're doing now to any significant extent.

Another big part of this, Maureen, is that the defending World Series champions, the Chicago Cubs, who everyone assumed would dominate the division again this year, have not been able to get going for whatever reason. They have a losing record at the break, which is astonishing considering their talent level. The Cardinals fit in that too, they're below .500. That's been a big part of it, too.

The Brewers attitude right now is, "If you guys don't want to win it, well heck, we'll try to win it then. If you're going to leave the door open we'll try to walk through it."

MM: This week it's the All Star Game and the Brewers have one player who made the roster, pitcher Corey Knebel. He's had a real dynamite season.

TH: He has. They started the year with Neftalí Feliz as their bullpen closer. He could not stop giving up home runs and they eventually cut ties with him... And Corey Knebel stepped right into that position, and he's been a really good closer. 

I don't know if people appreciate this one thing that he's done that's historic: He has at least one strikeout in every game he's pitched. That's 43 games. It's just incredible. 

We keep waiting for him to have an outing where he doesn't strike someone out and shows that he's a little bit human and not Superman, but he keeps doing it. The previous record was 39, so he's blown by and he's still building on it.

He ended the first half Sunday in New York by striking out the final three hitters as the Brewers held on to a 5-3 win over the Yankees. Now, he's in the All Star Game, and it's all kind of good for Corey. 

MM: So many players this season have been uniquely successful, but are there other key players that have surprised you or stepped up to the challenge?

TH: So many of them. Right at or near the top of the list is their new third baseman, Travis Shaw. He's definitely their MVP. He played well enough to make the All Star team, but there's just a ton of talented third basemen in the National League this year, and he got lost in the shuffle. But, he's leading them in home runs and RBIs (run batted in), he's been very consistent.

I think your listeners will be familiar with his family story.

Shaw and his wife had a baby daughter recently who had a heart defect and already had multiple surgeries and it was touch and go for a while. We're astonished with how much focus he's had on the field while he's had that personal crisis off the field. I think he spends every waking moment away from the ballpark at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, which he commends for doing a great job.

I mean, just imagine trying to do what he's doing on a daily basis and having in the back of his mind his baby daughter has not left the hospital yet. He is to be commended.

Also, you have Orlando Arcia, the young shortstop, 22 years old, blossoming before our eyes. Eric Thames played three years in (South) Korea, came back and set the club record for home runs in April.

MM: On Friday, we're entering the second half of the season. Do you think the Brewers have what it takes to keep the momentum going?

TH: We'll find out. They have a rough road schedule in the second half. They have two long trips, one coming up in July and another in August. The pressure's going to increase on them as they stay on top. You know, it's one thing to unexpectedly break through, but it's another to stay up there and pull it off. So, there will be pressure on them.

They seem oblivious to the pressure so far. We kid that they're too young and inexperienced to realize they're not supposed to be doing this. There's an old saying that "Ignorance is bliss."

There are still 71 games to go, so we'll see what happens. As Brewers owner Mark Attanasio likes to say, "The only thing predictable about baseball is its unpredictability." That's kind of what it is.

MM: Anything else?

TH: I know the fan support continues to be great, especially given the rebuilding plan. I think we do need to give the front office under General Manager David Stearns, who came in at age 30 after the 2015 season.

That's awfully young to be a general manager, and he came in and was entrusted to oversee this process, and I think they're to be commended for how they put this club together and made it competitive so quickly.

Another thing is Craig Counsell, Milwaukee born and bred.

He literally was born to be the Brewers manager. His dad worked for the club. I have a unique relationship with him, more so than any manager I've ever covered because I've known Counsell since he was a little boy.

His dad, John, worked for the club in the 80s and 90s, and Craig used to hang out. Then, he went off to Notre Dame and became a pro player. He was on a couple of World Series teams, came back and finished his career playing for the Brewers. He worked in their front office and then became manager. So, there's no one who's ever been more qualified to be the Brewers manager than Craig Counsell since he was born and raised to be their manager. And I think that's a big part of their success. 

Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2017, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board. More WPR news is available on KUWS-FM 91.3 or wpr.org.

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