AP NEWS

Brewers: Craig Counsell remains optimistic about Milwaukee’s pursuit of NL Central title

August 15, 2017 GMT

MILWAUKEE — There are 42 games remaining on the Milwaukee Brewers’ schedule and while a massive power outage wiped away a 5½-game lead in the NL Central, a look at the standings shows that all is not lost.

The Brewers’ postseason dreams were dinged by their July swoon, but when they take the field tonight at Miller Park to open a two-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates, they will be no worse than 2½ games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in front of us,” manager Craig Counsell said.

His optimism isn’t completely unwarranted. In fact, there are still plenty of reasons to think the Brewers might be able to turn things around and make it a fight to the finish.

The acquisition of switch-hitting infielder Neil Walker in a trade with the New York Mets certainly helps the cause. After being linked to Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler for the past few weeks, general manager David Stearns dealt for Walker over the weekend as a means to shore up a lack of production at second base — where the Brewers had an NL-worst .672 OPS at the time of the trade — and provide another versatile bat to the lineup.

“When we’ve been at our best, we’ve been a balanced lineup against right-handed pitching,” Counsell said. “Neil’s a guy that provides a little more thunder against right-handed pitching, a little more versatility.”

Jonathan Villar began the season as Milwaukee’s everyday second baseman but he’s been mired in a season-long funk at the plate (.223, nine home runs, 35 RBIs) and lost his starting role to Eric Sogard, a left-handed hitter.

But Sogard, too, has been slumping. He batted .331 with a .438 on-base percentage in 43 games after he was called up from Class AAA Colorado Springs in May, but after a two-week stint on the disabled list for ankle issues, he is batting a paltry .143 (6-for-41) with a .255 on-base percentage.

“I think largely he’ll play a lot of second base,” Counsell said of Walker. “There’s some first base in there and there’s third base in there. With the rest of the guys, it’s more depth to protect us from various bumps and bruises and things like that.”

While the offense was slumping, Milwaukee’s rotation managed to keep the team close. But the starters also have faltered a bit.

Brent Suter was lights out after taking over when Chase Anderson went to the DL with a strained oblique, posting a 1.50 ERA over his first five starts, but struggled his past three times out (8.16 ERA) and was placed on the disabled list Sunday with a mild rotator cuff strain.

“I don’t think that it’s serious, but I think he needs some time to recover a little bit here,” Counsell said on Sunday.

Thanks to a number of off days in the schedule, the Brewers should be able to buy time until Anderson returns. He made his second minor league rehab start last Sunday and has one more coming later this week. If all goes well, he could join the Brewers on their upcoming trip, providing a significant boost for the stretch run.

Veteran right-hander Matt Garza called a players-only meeting prior to the Reds series in an effort to remind the young roster that their postseason goals were still within reach and whether it had a direct effect can be debated, but Milwaukee scored 23 runs in the series and looks to be back on track.

“No matter what’s going on there is opportunity in front of us,” Counsell said. “That’s very important to keep on our mind because we’ve seen now in this span of about five weeks or really a month how much it’s changed for each team with a streak.

“We were the first ones to go on the streak. Then the Cubs went on a streak. The Cardinals went on a streak. It’s changed really quickly for each team. It’s left us all bunched together.

“We’ve got to do a little bit better if we want to get to that point and make the playoffs. You know there’s going to be a point where the rubber meets the road and you’ve got to earn it. So I think we realize that but that opportunity is certainly still in front of us.

“That’s a really good feeling.”