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Brewers in thick of NL Central race

Brewers in thick of NL Central race

MILWAUKEE -- Going into the season, the Brewers expected a dogfight in the National League Central. That's just what they've got.

2009 Midterm Report

It's the most hotly-contested division in Major League Baseball, the only one in which every team is within 10 games of the leader. The Brewers were that leader for much of the first half, owning at least a share of first place for 44 of 53 days from May 14-July 4 before slipping into second place.

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But general manager Doug Melvin has crunched the numbers and is satisfied that his team is still within striking distance.

"I've done the statistics, and we're not too far off from last year at the break," Melvin said. "Our on-base percentage is better and we've scored as many runs [per game] even though we have fewer hits, and we've hit into more double plays. Pitching-wise, our batting average against is the same, our runs allowed is the about same. ... The difference is we've given up a lot of extra-base hits.

"So you look at the overall team, we're three or four games different than last year [the Brewers were nine games over .500 at the break last season]. There's nothing that's so dramatic. We've talked about adding a pitcher, adding a hitter, but you can also say that maybe we've had a few guys underachieve compared to what they were last year. You can look at that as a positive, that maybe they're ready for a big second half."

Club MVP: Ryan Braun was the All-Star Game starter, but reserve Prince Fielder gets the club MVP nod for his remarkable consistency. Fielder has not gone more than four games without an RBI all season, and he had that long of a drought only once. Fielder wants to be known as a hitter, not just a slugger, and he continues to build a reputation as one of baseball's most dangerous cleanup men.

Call him "Ace:" The Brewers needed Yovani Gallardo to be the ace this year, and for the most part, he has delivered. Gallardo leads the Brewers in innings, and manager Ken Macha believes he could be even better in the second half if he makes progress with a changeup to induce outs earlier in counts, thus allowing him to pitch even deeper into games.

Greatest strength: The Brewers' fans have spent a lot of time worrying about the pitching staff, but club officials know this is a team that lives and dies at the plate. So far, the Brewers' offense has been potent, ranking low in the NL in average, but in the top half in slugging percentage, home runs and runs scored.

Biggest problem: If that offense is going to really take off, right fielder Corey Hart and shortstop J.J. Hardy need to discover some consistency. Both are former All-Stars -- Hart last season and Hardy in 2007 -- having down years in very important spots in the order. Hardy was supposed to be the five-hole hitter entering the season, but he proved a bust in that spot and has also struggled to claim hold of his previous spot hitting second. Hart tried his turn hitting fifth, but he was too prone to slumps for Macha's taste and has since bounced around the order. If the general manager is right and that duo is primed for big second halves, Braun and Fielder could become even more dangerous.

Biggest surprise: Infielders Craig Counsell and Casey McGehee both started the year on the bench, but they have emerged as key starters despite knee injuries. Counsell considered having surgery at the end of Spring Training to repair torn cartilage, but instead has played in pain and batted better than .300 for much of the first half. McGehee earned more playing time after second baseman Rickie Weeks went down with a season-ending wrist injury, and he's made the most of it.

Team needs: The Brewers knew the organization was thin in the starting pitching department going into the season, and that dearth of depth was exposed when Manny Parra was demoted to the Minors and Dave Bush went on the disabled list. Parra returned with seven scoreless innings in his final start before the All-Star break, and Bush is due back soon after, but there are still few solid options behind them. Melvin is working on it.

He said it: "We're right in the hunt, [even though] a bunch of guys aren't doing what they want to do. It could be a lot worse. We're all going to get better offensively. You figure it's got to turn around. We'll put up numbers when we get that consistency going." -- Hart

Mark your calendar: The final month is a beast for the Brewers, who play nine games against the Cardinals (Sept. 1-3 and Oct. 2-4 at Busch Stadium, and Sept. 7-9 at Miller Park) and seven games against the Cubs (Sept. 14-17 at Wrigley Field and Sept. 21-23 at Miller Park). If last year was an indication, things could be settled in the waning days of the regular season.

Fearless second-half prediction: Melvin will once again inject some enthusiasm into the clubhouse by dealing for a pitcher, but the Brewers won't be able to match their 90 wins from 2008.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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