Ryan Braun can hit. The Brewers' slugging left fielder entered Friday night hitting .306/.402/.563 (BA/OBP/SLG), and via a FanGraphs offensive metric, wRC+, his mark of 171 is tied with Reds first baseman Joey Votto for second in the National League. In fact, Braun is hitting so well, not even getting a day off can keep him from contributing.
Braun started the night on the bench in his return to the city where he was a star during his college career at the University of Miami. But with the Brewers down 5-4 to the Marlins in the top of the ninth and Yuniesky Betancourt on first base as the tying run following a leadoff single, manager Ron Roenicke called on Braun to pinch hit. With a 1-1 count after two fastballs down in the zone, Marlins closer Leo Nunez tried to work another fastball in on Braun's hands. It didn't quite get in fast enough, and the slugger turned on it and sent a line drive over the wall in left to give the Brew Crew the lead.
The Marlins made things interesting in their half of the ninth, thanks in no small part to Roenicke's decision to intentionally walk Mike Stanton to put the winning run on base. The Brewers ultimately loaded the bases following a John Buck walk with two outs, but closer John Axford rebounded to strike out Brett Hayes and preserve the victory.
The win continues an impressive run for Milwaukee. Despite the preseason hype the Brewers got after acquiring pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, a little less than a month ago, Milwaukee sat at just 13-19 and had lost seven games in a row. Since that early-season nadir, the Brewers have won 18 of 25 games and are two games out of first place in the highly competitive NL Central.
Carrying the Brewers has been their trio of familiar offensive stars. In addition to Braun, the Brewers have two other players, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks, among the top 12 NL hitters in wRC+, the most of any one team. Three other teams boast two players in the top 12: the same Marlins the Brewers defeated Friday, and division rivals St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Both the Brewers and Reds have to be feeling pretty good about where they stand. The Reds have been able to hang around the race despite some disappointing pitching, particularly from their starters, while the Brewers have successfully bounced back from their disappointing start and are firing on all cylinders after a spate of early-season injuries. They're both still looking up at the Cardinals, however, although fate certainly isn't helping the Redbirds in 2011.
For starters, you have to wonder how long Lance Berkman can continue to perform the Albert Pujols impersonation he's been doing thus far in 2011. Entering play Friday, the "Big Puma" was hitting .329/.449/.595 and leading the NL in wRC+. It certainly seems unlikely that he's going to do that for a full season, although stranger things have happened. Their other MVP candidate of the moment, Matt Holliday, just went on the DL. And Pujols still isn't hitting well, batting just .265/.335/.412, a downright shockingly un-Pujolsian performance thus far in 2011. Yet they're still leading the division. Plenty of observers were set to write them off even before the season started, especially after they lost Adam Wainwright for the year thanks to Tommy John surgery.
With this many good teams bunched atop the division, you can bet the trade deadline will be a very interesting time for their fans. After all, at least one of the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds will have to miss the playoffs, and with all of them having a legitimate chance to take the division crown, you can bet each will aggressively pursue improvements where it can. Right now, the Reds seem the most in need of help, desperately looking for improvements to their rotation and something, anything, approaching quality production from the shortstop position. The Cardinals are getting by for now, but you have to figure they'll want to at least do something to give them some depth with all the injuries they've been piling up lately -- although they are no doubt hoping their biggest addition in the next month or so is a rejuvenated Pujols.
As for the Brewers? They probably would like to add some help in the bullpen. That's the only real hole on this club so far, and that unit is still fifth in the league in xFIP, promising improvement during the season. As a result, while the Cardinals might be leading the division for now, it's a hot Brewers ballclub that looks like it is the best team at the moment.
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