They see the skepticism. The listen to the doubters. They read the latest projections.
Here are the Milwaukee Brewers in first place in the National League Central, where they have sat for more than a month, and yet it seems everyone’s waiting for the collapse.
Why, after losing two consecutive games to the Pittsburgh Pirates, FanGraphs is now giving them just a 3.7% chance to win the division, and only 6.5% to reach the playoffs.
Maybe the collapse in 2014 is still too fresh in everyone’s mind. It was the year the Brewers led the division right up to September, only to lose 22 of their final 31 games and finish eight games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, and completely out of the playoffs.
Now, three years later, the Brewers are the first-place team no one wants to believe.
“A lot of people thought that we’d be in first place for like a week,’’ says first baseman Eric Thames, who leads the team with 20 home runs, “and then we’d fall off and just kind of be like the team last year. But it’s a whole new team. Guys feel the confidence. We feel the mojo.’’
Still, the Brewers have been leading a division that’s the worst in baseball, with no one within even seven games of the second wild-card spot.
Everyone keeps waiting for the Chicago Cubs to wake up, and after beating up on the Padres at Wrigley Field this week, there’s a sense the Cubs will take off and leave everyone in their fumes.\
Still, the longer the Cubs let the Brewers hang around the penthouse level, the more the Brewers believe they can extend their lease. Certainly, they should hang around for at least another month with only four games against teams with a winning record until July 25.
“I felt like what set us apart from everybody in the division is that we had nothing to lose,’’ Thames said, “we weren’t playing up to anybody’s expectations. We were going to play hard, and just see where we end up.
“Then, a month ago, we looked at the standings, and it was like, ‘Wait, we’re in first place now? Ever since then, the confidence started coming out. It was like, “Hey, we’re a first place team. We can do this.’ It’s crazy. We expect to win now, and we’re pretty pissed off when we don’t.’’
The most surreal aspect of the Brewers’ success is they’re doing it without Ryan Braun. Braun, the 2011 NL MVP winner who has averaged 28 homers and 88 RBI the last two years, has been sidelined with a strained left calf. He has made only four starts since May 2 with no timetable set for his return.
They’ve even survived a deep three-week slump by Thames, who went 15 games and 63 plate appearances without a homer. It ended the early-season flurry of reporters surrounding him before games, and drug-testers following him to the bathroom after games.
“I kind of missed those guys,’’ says Thames, who has been drug-tested seven times this year, but only once in the last month, in his first season back from starring in South Korea. “Every time I homered, it seemed, they were there waiting for me. I stopped hitting, and those guys disappeared. Now, maybe they’ll start coming around again.’’
The Brewers’ staying power is a credit to Brewers general manager David Stearns, whose slew of moves jump-started their rebuilding process. He sent reliever Tyler Thornburg to the Boston Red Sox for third baseman Travis Shaw and three prospects. It turned out to be perhaps the most lopsided trade of the winter. While Thornburg just underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, Shaw is performing like an All-Star with his .295 batting average, 13 homers, 48 RBI and .887 on-base-plus-slugging , while going 41 consecutive games without an error.
The Brewers picked up slugger Jesus Aguilar off waivers from the Cleveland Indians, and he is hitting .329 over his last 34 games. Eric Sogard, who hadn’t played in the big leagues since 2015, has a slash line of .356./.464/.538 as their leadoff hitter. Catcher Manny Pina, the player to be namedin the Francisco Rodriguez trade, is hitting .295 with a .799 OPS, and leads the major leagues with five pick-offs. And of course, there’s Thames, who they signed to a three-year, $16 million contract in December, with his 20 homers, 38 RBI and .970 OPS.
“We came into the season with the understanding that we have a young team,’’ Stearns said, “and young teams can surprise.
“We knew we had a young talented group of position players ready to learn together, and mature together, so we were not going to put any limits on any player, or our team.’’
So while owner Mark Attanasio’s holiday refrain in his open letter to season ticket holders was patience, Stearns never once uttered that word, despite having only a $62.8 million payroll with just $24 million on the books next year.
“I have never used the term rebuilding,’’ Stearns says. “I know that’s the label placed on us, but we don’t pay too much attention to that. From my perspective, our front office and the guys in the clubhouse, we have avoided thinking about that. We want to accumulate as much young talent as we can, allow that young talent to grow together, and be patient with it.’’
The rotation has been the backbone of their success, and closer Corey Knebel leads all relievers with 63 strikeouts. He has struck out at least one batter in his first 36 appearances, one shy of equaling the modernrecord.
And, oh, yes, can they hit. They’ve hit 100 home runs quicker than any team in franchise history, and scored a franchise record 17 consecutive runs via the homer until Tuesday night.
“We’re a complete team, and we’re for real,’’ Braun says. “If you’re in first place after 2 ½ months of a season, it’s no fluke.’’
The Brewers, who have spent the last two years rebuilding their farm system, could face an intriguing dilemma at the July 31 trade deadline. Do they stay pat, trade away their prized prospects for a front-line starter, or dare trade away a veteran or two to keep the minor-league pipeline flowing?
“We have to balance the near- and long-term future,’’ Stearns says. “I think we have to keep that balance to be consistently competitive. I don’t really see any change in that just because where we sit in the standings.’’
In other words, the Brewers have no intention of trading the likes of Thames, Shaw or even Braun, no matter how tempting the package.
And they’re not about to mortgage the future by going all-in this year.
They will, however, share the spotlight. Thames is happy to cede much of it.
“That made me so uncomfortable,’’ he says. “Now, everything is all about the team. The Milwaukee Brewers.
“The first place-Milwaukee Brewers. It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.”