It looked like it might finally happen on Thursday evening. They had the lead as late as the seventh inning. Then, in the ninth, down by two, Ryan Braun stole second with nobody out. Unfortunately, he got duped by Andy LaRoche, who pretended as though the ball had gotten away. Braun busted for third and was immediately tagged out, much to the delight of Octavio Dotel, who struck out Prince Fielder and retired Casey McGehee on a soft liner to right, thus picking up his ninth save.
The Brewers, my pick for NL Central champion, finally ended the losing streak on Friday night. They now sit seven and a half games back of the division-leading Cardinals. They have been atrocious at home (4-14), but the obvious problem is, as usual, pitching. The Brewers are second in the NL in scoring runs, but second worst at allowing them.
Some of this was frankly unforeseeable. The Brewers hired two veteran relievers with long track records coming off dominant seasons, LaTroy Hawkins and Trevor Hoffman, and the pair have combined for six losses, seven blown saves, and an ERA upwards of 11.00. It's hard to balance that kind of squalor at the backend of your bullpen.
However, Ken Macha and Doug Melvin are hardly above reproach. Manny Parra and Chris Narveson were excellent during the preseason, yet Milwaukee exiled them both to the bullpen and wasted nine starts on Jeff Suppan (5.91 ERA) and an apparently unhealthy Doug Davis (7.56 ERA). Since Narveson entered the rotation, he's 3-1 with a respectable ERA (4.24) and a strong K/BB ratio (28/10). Parra joins him this week. Hopefully, if Brewers starters can start eating up more innings, the team's primary weakness won't be as dramatically overexposed.
The fact remains, however, if the Brewers are to have any hope of salvaging the season, they need to dramatically overhaul their bullpen. That process has begun. Carlos Villanueva (2.91 ERA, 11.22 K/9) has officially taken over as closer, while John Axford and Marco Estrada were promoted from AAA. I remain convinced that given the weaknesses of the Cardinals, Reds, and Cubs, the Brewers are not yet out of contention, but they are probably only a handful of blown leads away.