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Tom Oates: Brewers must continue offensive surge to offset disappointing pitching

May 15, 2017 GMT

MILWAUKEE — Keon Broxton knew in March the Milwaukee Brewers had some serious offensive pop.

At least that’s his story and he’s sticking with it.

“I’ve known since spring training that all these guys are bangers,” the Brewers center fielder said. “They’re out here and they attack pitches and attack fastballs that are in the zone, they square it up, so us doing this is not a surprise to me. We’ve got a lot of good hitters on this team.”

Nearly a quarter of the way through what is supposed to be another rebuilding season for Milwaukee, the numbers back up Broxton’s claims. The Brewers have one of baseball’s most potent offenses and it has lifted them to a surprising 21-17 record.

Milwaukee’s offensive onslaught continued in an 11-9 come-from-behind victory over New York Mets on Sunday at Miller Park, completing a homestand in which it went 5-1 and scored 48 runs. Trailing 7-1 in the sixth inning, the Brewers scored 10 runs in their final three at-bats, capped off by Manny Pina’s winning three-run home run in the eighth.

“It’s just the relentlessness that we’ve been showing offensively that is really encouraging,” manager Craig Counsell said.

At this point in the season, the Brewers rank first in the major leagues in home runs (63) and extra-base hits (147), second in runs scored (203) and slugging percentage (.475) and third in stolen bases (35). Better yet, the offense has been fairly consistent despite a still-high strikeout total and the injury-related loss of No. 3 hitter Ryan Braun for most of the past two weeks.

Here’s the kicker, though: It is the offense that has gotten the Brewers to the plus side of .500 and it is the offense that will have to keep them there.

The regular run production has both staked the Brewers to big leads — they’ve scored 37 first-inning runs in 38 games — and kept them in slugfests, but it can’t fall off because the pitching, while not a disaster, has been a disappointment. The starters haven’t been able to pitch deep into games and the bullpen has been inconsistent.

The offense sure has been fun to watch, though. And the way the Brewers have done it should give people hope the run production will be sustainable through a long season.

“It’s just (having) a lot of guys that can do it,” Counsell said. “This guy can be hot and this guy can be not swinging so good, but we have enough guys that can do damage and create offense that it doesn’t have to be one guy. They can kind of take turns as through the course of a normal season you would. This year I think we’ve created more length in our lineup, we’ve created more depth in our lineup and we’ve created more balance in our lineup. All those things are (contributing). And the hitters, they’re doing a good job. They’re doing a really good job.”

The key words are balance and depth. The Brewers constructed an everyday lineup that has no glaring holes in it and a bench that contains actual hitters as opposed to the Class AAA-level utility players of the past.

Infield acquisitions Eric Thames and Travis Shaw added much-needed left-handed power to what had been a predominantly right-handed lineup. Pina and Jett Bandy, the time-sharing catchers, have hit all season and once Broxton and shortstop Orlando Arcia got going, the bottom of the batting order finally started making noise. Finally, Hernan Perez and Jesus Aguilar have given Counsell a viable bench, whether they are pinch hitting, replacing injured players in the lineup or simply giving the manager options for moves such as double switches.

“A lot of guys are feeling really good at the plate,” Counsell said.

One thing the Brewers are doing is reducing their strikeouts. Milwaukee set a major-league record with 1,543 strikeouts last season, then whiffed at an even higher rate early this season. Lately, though, they’ve been striking out less and enjoying it more.

In their first 18 games, the Brewers averaged 10.4 strikeouts per outing, about one per game more than last season. But in their past 20 games, they’ve struck out only 8.2 times per outing. That’s still not ideal, but it is acceptable for a young, power-laden team.

“As those guys get more and more at-bats, they will be better at (making contact),” Counsell said. “You get sick of swinging at sliders in the dirt and you stop swinging at them. But a big part of it is youth. It’s a product of youth and experience. As we get that, I think we’ll see guys get better at it.”

One thing Counsell doesn’t want to see is any change in mentality. He wants aggressive hitters, which is why he hasn’t made strikeouts a focus.

“We’re trying to do damage,” he said. “I think we’ve done a good job — a better job certainly — with two strikes lately. But it’s not a don’t-strike-out mentality. It’s still a put-your-best-swing-on-a-pitch-you-can-hit mentality. ... I think as these guys go, they’ll get better at defending two strikes and spoiling some good pitches and keeping the at-bat alive for that pitch that you can do some damage with.”

Lately, the Brewers have been doing a lot of damage. The reality is they’re going to have to keep on doing it.