Starting Pitching and Mental Roadblocks Have Led to Inconsistency for Milwaukee Brewers

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COMMENTARY | At one point and time in this young Major League Baseball season, the Milwaukee Brewers were 14-11 and just a game away from taking over first place in the National League Central.

That was two weeks ago, and let's just say things have taken a turn for the worse.

Ten games later -- all of which were against teams with a winning record -- the Brewers found themselves five games below .500. When Milwaukee loses a game following a win, it has lost at least the next game every time except once.

In other words, there is something this team really dislikes about losing. Of course, nobody likes to lose, but the Brewers have a tendency to get on a roll when they finally get over that mental roadblock. The only problem is that right now, Milwaukee isn't getting over that roadblock, and things aren't quite about to get any easier.

Seven games remain on the current road trip -- four against the Pittsburgh Pirates and three in St. Louis to square off against the Cardinals. Milwaukee has combined to go 3-7 against these two teams in 2013, with the Cardinals simply dominating the Brewers in every facet of the game.

OK. This helps to explain why Milwaukee is 7 1/2 games out of first place with the worst run differential in the division. But how did the Brewers get here, and what has created such an ebb and flow feel to their 2013 season?

Typically, continuity is a good thing in sports, and that has been something Milwaukee has not had the luxury of enjoying in the lineup. The strange part, however, is that the Brewers are 2-8 with Aramis Ramirez in the starting nine and 13-12 with both Ramirez and Corey Hart sidelined.

Here's something that isn't strange -- it's not Ramirez's fault. He's hit .444 since returning from a knee injury that kept him out for four weeks.

Milwaukee ranks in the Top 10 in batting average (No. 8 in MLB, .263) and slugging percentage (No. 5, .433), and yet the runs (No. 18) aren't keeping up. This would seem to indicate a lack of coming through in the clutch, as Milwaukee is hitting .248 (No. 17) with runners in scoring position through 35 games.

The Brewers have some historically clutch hitters, including Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy, and both have been relatively clutch this season, but that simply isn't rubbing off on the remainder of the offense, especially Rickie Weeks, who is only hitting .086 with RISP.

The fact of the matter is that Weeks isn't hitting regardless of whether or not someone is in scoring position. As has always been the case with Weeks, he still finds ways to get on base -- his OBP was .121 higher than his average through 35 games -- but it's the production that takes a massive hit when Weeks' average is as low as it is.

Basically, it's Weeks that has been the giant black hole in the lineup this season, not to mention Lucroy, who's only getting on base at a .274 clip. Throw in Yuniesky Betancourt's .281 OBP, and that's three regulars who aren't getting on base all that much.

At least in the case of Lucroy and Betancourt, they are driving in runs. Milwaukee is wasting the improbable starts to the season of Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura and Yuni B himself, but there is only so much the offense can do.

In a game where you turn to your ace to try and stop the bleeding, Yovani Gallardo took 100 pitches to get through four innings and the Brewers eventually fell to the Cincinnati Reds on May 10 to drop their seventh game in eight days.

In a game where the Brewers managed seven runs off one of the National League's best pitchers this season in Mat Latos, Hiram Burgos gave up ten earned runs in three innings. Now, Milwaukee's starting rotation has the worst ERA (5.25) in the NL.

As for the bullpen, the unit is getting the job done for the most part. That is, when you take John Axford out of the equation. His blown save against the Pirates on May 1 is what started this downward spiral, and that shut down all momentum -- momentum Milwaukee desperately needed heading into a series against the pesky Cardinals.

Having trouble coming through when it matters most? That points to a mental blockade and one can only assume that Milwaukee's average with RISP will begin to draw closer to the team's average as a whole. That largely comes down to Rickie Weeks snapping out of his funk.

Closing out games with a lead in hand? Don't throw in John Axford, and there's a pretty good chance the Brewers bring home a victory.

The real issue is starting pitching, and it doesn't have nearly as much of a clear-cut solution.

Often in baseball, the only solution is time, especially in this case considering the dearth of options in Milwaukee's system. That 5.25 number is also a little misleading, especially because of the level of competition the Brewers have recently faced along with plenty of underperforming.

The schedule becomes outrageously easier for Milwaukee was it returns home on May 20, and soon thereafter, Hart makes his triumphant return.

Patience is a virtue -- hopefully one the Brewers and their fans possess.

Dave Radcliffe is a resident of a little known Milwaukee suburb who contains an unhealthy amount of knowledge about Wisconsin sports. He has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.

You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_ .

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