MLB.com Columnist

Terence Moore

First-place Brewers are defying the odds

NL Central's surprise club is thriving despite slow start with the bats

First-place Brewers are defying the odds

So the Brewers are positioned where in the National League Central, and despite only Cheeseheads as their true believers, they expect to do what after grabbing the division title?

I won't keep you in suspense. The Brewers are in first place in the NL Central, and they expect to do well in the playoffs.

Let's put what I just typed into perspective, because unless you're among those Cheeseheads, this doesn't make sense.

According to conventional wisdom before the season, this was the Cardinals' division to lose, with the Brewers drifting somewhere in the middle of the pack. Now that made sense, and it still does. The Cardinals won the NL Central last year, along the way to the World Series, with many of their current players. They also reached the NL Championship Series in 2012 after capturing a World Series title the year before that.

If folks didn't make the Cardinals their preseason pick to win the NL Central, they likely went with the Pirates. Such a thing looks shaky now, since the Pirates are mediocre or worse in nearly every aspect of the game this season, but it was a solid choice over the winter. With reigning NL Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen and his rising supporting cast, the Pirates spent last year giving Pittsburgh a winning Major League team for the first time since Bill Mazeroski sent that shot over Yogi Berra's head at Forbes Field.

Actually, before last season, 1992 was the last time the Pirates ended a season with more victories than losses. It just seemed longer.

Then there were the Reds of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Aroldis Chapman and near misses in recent years. Not much to dislike among that group. You could see Cincinnati finishing atop the NL Central without much problem, and that remains a possibility if the Reds ever discover offense again.

I won't even mention the Cubs in their search for relevance. Which brings us back to the Brewers. Yep, the Brewers, who finished 23 games behind the Cardinals last season. Not only that, their 74-88 record was so awful that they trailed the third-place Reds by 16 games, but you know what? Virtually those same Brewers have owned the biggest lead of any division leader in the league for many of the last few days. They've done so despite a recent slump. More specifically, they've done so despite a lot of things.

The lack of hitting, for one.

Injuries, for another.

"Health will be the key for us," said Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, referring to aches and pains ranging from the strained hamstring of third baseman Aramis Ramirez to the damaged oblique of slugger Ryan Braun to the facial stitches that shortstop Jean Segura needed after getting accidentally whacked by a warmup swing from Braun. "We started out real strong, but we've had some injuries here and there, and hitters have gone down, so we haven't been hitting as good lately. But we're capable of scoring a lot of runs."

No question about that. The Brewers have the ability to smother opponents with every kind of hit you can name, because they are, well, the Brewers. Hitting is what the Brewers historically do as the franchise of Bambi's Bombers and Harvey's Wallbangers. The likes of Gorman Thomas, Cecil Cooper and George Scott produced runs in a hurry with power. There also was the line-drive efficiency of Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and others.

These Brewers have spat on their legacy by generating little or no offense. They entered Tuesday night's action ranked 21st in the Major Leagues in runs scored and 21st in batting average. That said, this actually is scary news for Milwaukee opponents. You just know they'll hit with proficiency sooner rather than later, which means they only will get better in the standings.

That's because the Brewers' pitching and defense show no sign of becoming less than pretty good.

About the defense: With Carlos Gomez in center, Scooter Gennett at second, Segura at short and Lucroy behind the plate, the Brewers are as impressive up the middle as anybody in baseball.

"You can't strike everybody out, especially a guy like me, so you need a good defense back there," said Brewers pitcher Kyle Lohse, 35, reflecting on his 14 Major League years of experience. "We throw strikes, make them put the ball in play, and with the guys we have who can pick it and track the ball down, it makes all of us [pitchers] look good."

About that pitching: It looks good, all right. If you ignore the bullpen's rare meltdown Monday night in Atlanta, Milwaukee pitching has been nearly flawless all season. While Francisco Rodriguez had an NL-leading 17 saves entering Tuesday's action as the rebirth of his K-Rod self, Will Smith had a bunch of outrageous numbers (one earned runs in 20 1/3 innings for a 0.44 ERA). As for the starters, Lohse anchors an impressive rotation of Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada. When you combine starters and relievers, the Brewers' 3.29 ERA was second in the Major Leagues before Tuesday's action.

"You don't see too many solid teams that don't have solid pitching, and we knew in Spring Training that we had all of the pieces in place to have a good staff," said Lohse, who is 5-1 with a 2.88 ERA. Before joining the Brewers in 2013, he spent his previous five years in St. Louis, where he helped the Cardinals snatch two NL pennants and a World Series championship.

When it comes to the Brewers, it's first things first, though. I'm talking about first, as in these guys first, trying to resurrect their ability to hit like crazy in order to stay in first place in the NL Central through the end of the season.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.