If we told you back on opening day that one of the teams in the NL Central would have baseball's best record at the end of April, you probably would have guessed the St. Louis Cardinals.
But it's not them, nor the Pittsburgh Pirates nor the Cincinnati Reds, both playoff teams a year ago. It's the Milwaukee Brewers — a team that finished 74-88 last season, but has raced to a 20-8 record in April. They were the first team to win 20 games and they finish the month with a 5 1/2 game lead in the NL Central. On Wednesday, the Brewers lost to the Cardinals 9-3, but still took two of three in the series from the defending NL champs. It wasn't the best way to end April, but it doesn't diminish their status as the surprise team of the first month of the season.
Surely, the Brewers aren't going to keep up a winning percentage of .714, but after this first month they've proven they're worth talking about in a division where many people thought there were only three relevant teams.
How did the Brewers do it? There have been a number of factors — from the return of Ryan Braun to the resurgence of their closer. Here's a closer look at how the Brewers became the surprise team of 2014.
THEY'VE PLAYED REALLY, REALLY WELL ON THE ROAD
Home-field advantage? Not that big of a deal for the Brewers so far this season. The team is 11-2 on the road. Before losing Wednesday in St. Louis, the Brewers hadn't lost on the road since April 17 against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
RYAN BRAUN IS BACK
Ryan Braun's return from a season shortened by PED suspension has been everything the Brewers hoped — he's hitting .318/.361/.591, with six homers and 18 RBIs. Sure, people are still going to call him names and boo him, but there's no denying he's been a big contributor. He's hurt right now, sidelined by an oblique strain but not (yet?) on the disabled list. His health might be a big factor in Milwaukee's continued success.
CARLOS GOMEZ HELPS EVERYWHERE
Gomez's April is marred by the ugly brawl he was a part of, but you can't ignore all he gives the Brewers. He leads the team in runs and hits, but contributes across the board — seven homers, four stolen bases and stellar defense in the outfield. Last season he had WAR of 7.6, according to Fangraphs, but he wasn't completely viewed as a legit MVP candidate. Gomez has the fifth-best WAR in the NL right now. A winning team could legitimize his MVP candidacy this season if he keeps this up.
THEIR STARTING PITCHING HAS BEEN GREAT
The Brewers didn't come into the season with one of the most praised starting pitching staffs in baseball, but they've delivered. Their 3.01 ERA is top five in MLB, and they've done it with a mixture of experienced guys having great starts and their end-of-the-rotation starters looking much improved. Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta all have sub-3.00 ERAs.
ARAMIS RAMIREZ IS MASHING WITH RUNNERS IN SCORING POSITION
Aramis Ramirez has been, for the most part, healthy and driving in runs early this season. Ramirez, who has a tough injury history, was cruising along until he was hit by a pitch earlier this week and hurt his elbow. He's expected back in the lineup Thursday, which is good news because he's been great for the Brewers with runners in scoring position. He has 12 hits in 24 at-bats with 16 RBIs. That's the third-most hits in baseball with RISP.
K-ROD IS K-ROD AGAIN
Closer Francisco Rodriguez, the once-feared stopper known as K-Rod, is back to being the pitcher we once knew. He's converted 13-of-13 save opportunities without giving up a run. He's only given up seven hits while striking out 23. K-Rod once saved 62 games, back in 2008, but hasn't had more than 25 in a season since 2010.
THE REST OF THE BULLPEN HAS BEEN DOING GREAT TOO
It's not just K-Rod who has been effective for the Brewers. Their relief pitchers have an ERA of 2.47, fourth best in MLB. Opponents were hitting .194 against the Brewers bullpen coming into Wednesday's game. As good bullpens often do, they've taken on a personality of their own. The Brewers have rallied around pitcher Wei-Chung Wang and created Wei-Chung Wang Wednesdays, where they do stuff like this:
And that brings us to …
THEY LOOK TO BE HAVING A LOT OF FUN
Post-game selfies? "Happy" music videos? Hey, whatever works guys.
Post game selfie! All the pitchers that dominated tonight@KyleLohse26@white_willy31@Jimhenderson29@TylerThornburg pic.twitter.com/WuzCMrDd5n
— Jonathan Lucroy (@JLucroy20) April 30, 2014
Maybe he's a good-luck charm sent from outer space to change the fortune of one MLB team. The Brewers were nice enough to take him in, and thus they are reaping the reward. Or the Brewers could just have really good karma right now for adopting Hank.
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