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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Secret to Crew's success lies in starters

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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

MILWAUKEE -- Why have the Brewers spent a franchise-record 127 straight days in first place when preseason predictions generally placed them in fourth?

There is never one simple answer for a question of this magnitude. But if your answer starts with "starting pitching," you're headed in the right direction.

The answer is not "Nobody else in the National League Central is any good."

You could say that some of the Brewers' competitors have not done as well as expected, but this group turned out three postseason qualifiers last season, including the NL pennant-winning Cardinals. There are still four teams in the race for the division title, and this should be one of the best races in baseball over the next seven weeks.

The Brewers have received a generally high level of performance from their rotation. There have been the usual ups and downs in personal performances, there has been one change in the rotation, and another one will be necessitated by an injury to Matt Garza.

This is not a heralded group compared with, for instance, that of the Dodgers, who easily come to mind in this context because they are here this weekend at Miller Park, with Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw pitching back to back on Saturday and Sunday.

The star-studded Dodgers and the small-market Brewers met on Friday night, and the Brewers emerged with a 9-3 victory, coming from behind after losing an early lead, scoring four runs in the seventh and three in the eighth.

The offense was typically diverse. The Brewers scored on a squeeze bunt, and they scored on a three-run homer. They gratefully accepted two errors by Dodgers backup infielder Justin Turner at shortstop that helped provide three unearned runs.

The victory, however, was set in motion by six one-run innings by starting pitcher Kyle Lohse. This is the kind of solid performance the Brewers have been getting with regularity from their rotation.

Every series the Brewers play -- like this one, for example -- it is easy to say that the opposing rotation has the bigger names, the Cy Young Awards, the no-hitters.

But without a consistent rotation, there could be nothing like 127 consecutive days in first place.

"It would have no chance to happen," manager Ron Roenicke said. "We really like our five guys. I think when you have all five guys that you really like out there, that's a luxury. Not many organizations have that.

"So we're very fortunate. I mean, look at what happened going into the season this year. Wily [Peralta] was our No. 5 guy. Our No. 5 guy. Look what he's doing this year. That's outstanding."

Peralta, 25, is tied with St. Louis' Adam Wainwright for the Major League lead in victories, with 14. He has won his last five starts. He throws a 98-mph fastball with serious sink. In a victory over the Giants on Thursday, he recorded 20 outs; 11 groundouts and nine strikeouts. The Brewers' outfield was, essentially, unemployed.

Of course, there have been bumps in the road. The Brewers still like Marco Estrada's potential as a starter, but he had become vulnerable to the home run, leading both leagues in long balls surrendered. Fortunately, the Brewers had a more than adequate replacement available. Jimmy Nelson, another 25-year-old, was tearing it up at Triple-A Nashville. Nelson, who has a mid-90s fastball with movement, came up and had one rough start, but since then has had three straight quality starts, each one better than the one before it.

And now that depth will be tested again. Garza, after some erratic performances early in the season, hit his stride, but he has sustained an injury to his left oblique and is on the disabled list. Taking Garza's place in the rotation on Saturday will be Mike Fiers, who was 8-5 with a 2.55 ERA at Nashville.

"We're bringing up Fiers, and we've already got Jimmy Nelson here," Roenicke said. "But we've still got Marco. We still feel good with Marco if he goes back in the rotation. So we still feel like we have depth."

Though the offense has been inconsistent and there have been shortcomings in middle relief, generally strong performances from Peralta, Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Garza and, more recently, Nelson have kept the Brewers not only afloat, but on top in the NL Central.

If you look at the matchups for the rest of this series -- Fiers vs. Greinke and Nelson vs. Kershaw -- you would almost automatically dismiss the Brewers' chances. But at some point this season, the worth of the Milwaukee rotation will have to be fully recognized. Maybe that will require being in first place at the close of business on Sept. 28. But that kind of result, unthinkable in March, is a real possibility for the Brewers now.

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

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