MILWAUKEE — The loss of Ryan Braun from the lineup often meant trouble for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Not anymore, at least through the first six weeks of the season.
Milwaukee keep mashing, even with Braun on the 10-disabled list with a calf injury.
Entering Monday’s game at San Diego, the Brewers led the majors with 63 homers and 21 multi-homer games. They’re second in slugging percentage at .475. They can run, too, third in the National League with 35 steals.
The most impressive stat: Milwaukee is 21-17 after a three-game, weekend sweep of the New York Mets. They moved to four games over .500 for the first time since Sept. 24, 2014.
No one at Miller Park is saying that the rebuilding is over. Pitching is an early issue; a 4.25 team ERA is 19th in the majors, and starters have a pedestrian 4.53 ERA.
But the offensive outburst is making this period of renovation fun for the franchise.
“Everything is great and fun when you win,” said utility man Hernan Perez, who is hitting .318 in May and hitting third for Braun while the regular left fielder is sidelined.
“He’s great, we need him in the lineup,” Perez said after the Brewers rallied from a seven-run deficit on Sunday. “I hope he’ll be back soon, but without him, we do the same – play hard, try to score runs.”
The Brewers celebrated like Little Leaguers after Manny Pina‘s three-run homer with two outs in the eighth to give Milwaukee the 11-9 win. They rallied from a six-run deficit going into the sixth.
Free agent signee Eric Thames has been a revelation after returning to the majors following a three-year stint playing ball in South Korea. He’s hitting .315 with 13 homers and 25 RBIs, mostly batting second ahead of Braun.
Against the Mets on Sunday, Thames scored three runs. His bushy-bearded look has quickly made him a recognizable fan favorite.
Third baseman Travis Shaw is hitting .283 with eight homers and a team-high 31 RBIs. The Brewers have a bargain in the cleanup spot after acquiring Shaw and two minor leaguers from the Boston Red Sox in the offseason for reliever Tyler Thornburg.
Thames and Shaw added much-needed left-handed bats to what had been a predominantly right-handed lineup. Manager Craig Counsell sandwiched them around Braun.
There is production off the bench, too. Shaw left Sunday’s game after injuring his right index finger while trying to dig out an infield single, leaving the Brewers without their regular third- and fourth-place hitters with Braun also out. Jesus Aguilar replaced Shaw in the cleanup spot, hitting an RBI double in the eighth on Sunday before Pina went deep.
“It’s different guys. (Perez) filling in in the three-spot this weekend and hitting like a three-hole hitter. Aguilar taking Travis’ place tonight and last night and doing the same thing. A lot of guys feeling really good at the plate,” Counsell said.
The emergence of Keon Broxton has also helped lengthen the lineup. Broxton, who normally hits seventh, is hitting .362 with three homers and 10 RBIs since April 21. He has raised his average for the season from .133 to .270 in that period.
Braun, who is hitting .287 with seven homers and 18 RBIs, could return by this weekend for a series in Chicago against the Cubs. It’s possible that the Brewers could be without Braun, too, if they deal him and his $20 million-a-year contract by the trade deadline this summer. The farm system has promising offensive prospects.
For now, the current version of the Brewers is doing just fine at the plate.
“This team, we’re all optimistic … we believe anything can happen,” Broxton said after hitting a home run Sunday to aid the comeback. “I don’t think anyone on this team feels we’re ever out of the game.”
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