Milwaukee returns offense that battered NL pitching staffs
PHOENIX There was a moment last season when the Milwaukee Brewers started to click.
Perhaps it happened once the Brewers realized that they didn't have to do anything special to make up for the loss of Prince Fielder. Or when they finally started to buy into the changes that manager Ron Roenicke and new hitting coach Johnny Narron had been trying to implement.
Whatever the case, the Brewers quietly put together one of the most productive and efficient offensive seasons in the majors, leading the NL in runs, homers and RBIs.
Not to mention slugging percentage and stolen bases.
"But the first half of the season last year, we were not good offensively," Roenicke is quick to point out. "If you look at the numbers, it was not good at all, and I don't forget that."
Easy to forget that the Brewers hit .245 before the All-Star break, 13th among the 16 teams in the NL last season. They scored the fifth-most runs, but inconsistency up and down the lineup kept them producing at an even higher level.
But right around the Midsummer Classic, things started to change, and the Brewers hit .276 the rest of the way. They hit 101 homers over the second half, second only to the Nationals, and the 392 runs they scored trailed by just two the major league-leading Athletics.
"I know what can happen with offenses from year to year," Roenicke said. "Sometimes they click, sometimes they don't. We'll see this year. But to lead the league in runs scored when you look at some of the offenses, even in our division, that's pretty impressive."
Productive offenses come in all shapes and sizes.
The Angels are built for power around home-run hitters such as Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. The Cardinals played for the NL pennant by putting the ball in play—they tied for the league lead in hits. And the Giants won the World Series last year thanks in part to a lineup that hit .269, fifth-best in the majors, even though it was dead last in home runs.
The Brewers, meanwhile, managed to outscore just about everybody with a lineup that turned out to be a near-perfect blend of speed, brawn—or should we say, Braun?—and clutch hitting.
"The biggest thing for us is that we're solid in all facets of the game," second baseman Rickie Weeks said. "We hit for average, we hit for power and we steal bases, and we create runs, whether it's squeezing runners over, bunting and doing whatever we can to get runs in."
Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Norichika Aoki each swiped 30 or more bases, contributing to a league-leading 158 for the season. Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Jonathan Lucroy were everyday players who hit at least .300, and Aoki hit .288 in his first big league campaign.
Then there was the power: Braun, a five-time All-Star, hit a career-best 41 homers and drove in 112 runs, Corey Hart belted 30 homers for only the second time in his career, and Ramirez hit 27 homers while driving at more than 100 runs for the first time in four years.
"I don't know. It's hard to explain," Hart said. "Braun is one of the best players out there. Throw me, Rickie and the rest of the guys in there, we're pretty balanced.
"We concentrated on being more balanced without Prince," Hart said, "and it ended up working in our favor. We leaned on so many guys that we ended up pretty balanced."
Most of that balance is back this season.
Braun will be trying to replicate his success after dealing with an offseason of controversy for his connection to a clinic that's been been linked to performance-enhancing drugs.
Aoki, Weeks and most of the rest of the lineup is back, too, although Hart will be out until at least late April following surgery on his right knee, and young first baseman Mat Gamel is out for the season after tearing his right ACL for the second straight year.
Ramirez strained his left knee on Saturday and could miss a bit of time this spring.
The Brewers haven't been swinging the bat nearly as well as last season during their first exhibition games, either, but they don't appear too concerned about it. Most of them have been together long enough to understand what they are capable of doing.
Just look at what they did the second half of last season.