Real or not? Brewers are contenders, Jose Berrios breaks out

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The Milwaukee Brewers are 24-18 and in first place after a 4-2 win over the San Diego Padres on Thursday, their ninth in 11 games. Sure, it’s unlikely to last. The odds are long, especially in a tough NL Central where you know the Chicago Cubs haven’t yet played their best baseball. The computers give them about 2 percent odds of winning the division, about 10 percent of making the playoffs. You know what, though? It’s fun to be in first place!

So let’s dream up the scenario in which the Brewers remain competitive all season.

1. Eric Thames keeps putting up MVP-type numbers

Thames is hitting .313/.432/.688 and he has slowed down a bit since the Brewers stopped playing the Cincinnati Reds. Still, if he can keep an OPS around 1.000, it gives the Brewers a premier run producer. I also love that Craig Counsell has kept him in the second spot in the lineup, maximizing his high on-base percentage.

2. The rest of the lineup is legit

The Brewers are second in the NL in runs per game, first in the majors in home runs and tied for third in wOBA, so there is some depth behind Thames and they’re scoring runs even without Ryan Braun. Travis Shaw is slugging .545, they have good bench options in Hernan Perez and Jesus Aguilar and their catchers have been hitting. And Eric Sogard went 4-for-4 on Thursday, his second four-hit game in three days. The key guys for me are Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton. They got off to slow starts, but have much better of late, and Santana is up to .271/.362/.442 and Broxton is at .266/.324/.453. Those two strike out a ton — the Brewers have the second-highest K rate in the majors behind the Tampa Bay Rays — so they will be prone to hot and cold streaks, but they’re not overachieving right now.

3. They have a closer

Corey Knebel has replaced Neftali Feliz and he’s the real deal, picking up his third save on Thursday as he struck out the side (around two walks). He has 38 strikeouts in 22 innings and owns the second-highest strikeout rate in the majors among pitchers with at least 20 innings. He averages 96 mph with his fastball and mixes in a curveball that batters are hitting .188 against.

4. The starting rotation maybe isn’t terrible

OK, there’s no ace here. There’s not really a No. 2. Zach Davies, who got the win on Thursday, is 5-2, but has a 5.44 and he was supposed to be their best starter. Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson have been decent, but one key is there could be help coming from the minors in Brandon Woodruff and Josh Hader, two top prospects in one of the best farm systems in the majors. Woodruff has been one of the best starters in Triple-A and while Hader has battled some control issues, he has terrific stuff. Colorado Springs also has a 30-year-old minor league vet named Paolo Espino, who has a 2.54 ERA with 40 strikeouts and five walks in 39 innings. Maybe he turns into this year’s Junior Guerra.

5. The NL has a lot of bad teams

Four of the teams in the NL East are horrible. The Padres are bad. The Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants have struggled and the Reds don’t have the pitching. That opens the door for a surprise contender like the Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks or Brewers.

6. They have the best bobblehead of the season:

An eye for eye and a loss

As expected, the Atlanta Braves plunked Jose Bautista in the top of the first inning, retribution for Freddie Freeman‘s broken wrist and Bautista’s bat flip from Wednesday. Buster Olney summed up the ridiculousness of the baseball code:

Maybe it didn’t matter in the long run of a blowout victory for the Blue Jays, but why give a free baserunner when you have a struggling pitcher in Julio Teheran? He’s becoming a concern for the Braves. It’s too early to read anything into his home/road splits — he has a 10.50 ERA at home — but not too early to worry about the walks and decrease in swings-and-misses.

Marcus Stroman also did this, the second home run ever by a Blue Jays pitcher (Mark Hendrickson hit one in 2003):

Jose Berrios has a breakout performance

The Minnesota Twins and Rockies split a doubleheader, but it was Berrios’ performance in the nightcap that had everyone buzzing, with 11 strikeouts and two hits in 7⅔ innings. Double-digit strikeout games are commonplace these days … except for the Twins. Since 2011, Twins starters had just eight such games prior to Berrios’ outing. The Washington Nationals had 24 in 2016 alone.

Berrios was a top prospect before the 2016 season, but he had one of the one rougher seasons in recent history, posting an 8.02 ERA in 14 starts, just the 12th pitcher to make at least that many starts and finish with an ERA over 8.00. With that in mind, the Twins gave him six starts at Rochester to open this season. He was great down there (1.13 ERA) and now has two excellent starts with the Twins, hopefully giving him the confidence to succeed in the bigs.

Nine in a row for the Texas Rangers

It has been mostly about the pitching. Martin Perez allowed two runs in seven innings as the Rangers beat the Philadelphia Phillies 8-4. They’ve had eight quality starts in the nine games, won all eight games on the homestand and now embark on a nine-game road trip to Detroit, Boston and Toronto that will be a good test.

Quick thoughts … Good take from Jerry Crasnick on the how the Mets’ injury issues go beyond just the injury list. … Andrew Marchand has a closer look at Starlin Castro‘s big start for the Yankees. … From the things-I-dislike file: Dusty Baker hits backup outfielder Brian Goodwin in the 2-hole. Now, a couple regulars were getting the day off, but Baker didn’t want Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy hitting back to back, so he had Anthony Rendon in the cleanup spot and Matt Wieters and Adam Lind hitting sixth and seventh. But this is common sense: Why bat your worst hitter second just to separate the lefties? Is getting a potential extra at-bat from Murphy (or even Lind) more important than worrying about a lefty coming out of the Pittsburgh bullpen. Just bad managing. … Speaking of the Nats, one guy struggling is Trea Turner, who is down to .236/.269/.417. As great as he was last year, his aggressive approach was the concern and pitchers have figured out how to exploit that as he has 34 strikeouts and just five walks.

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