Brewers: First Week, First Place

The Milwaukee Brewers’ first calendar week of games saw a lot of firsts.

Manny Parra’s first career major league victory. Gabe Kapler’s first pinch-hit home run. New closer Eric Gagne’s first blown save, first victory (recorded in the same game) and first save. The first series win of 2008. The first extra innings game of the year. The first rain delay of the season.

Most importantly, Milwaukee (4-1) entered the second week of the season in first place in the NL Central.

Oh sure, it’s early. And you’d only have to go back two years to find evidence that a hot first week (5-0 in 2006) for the Brewers doesn’t automatically translate into lasting success (a disappointing 75-87 finish).

But any Brewer fan would have to like what Ned Yost’s team has done so far. Particularly since the Brewers took the first two out of three games against the rival Chicago Cubs, the team picked by most pundits to win the NL Central.

It was only a year ago that Milwaukee was the hot pick to win the division over the Cubs. This year it seems most have decided that Chicago will repeat as NL Central champs.

The early results indicate that after their first winning season in 15 years, the Brewers are not quite ready to slip back into irrelevance.

Not only are the Brewers winning, they are winning in impressive fashion. In the season opener at Wrigley Field, Milwaukee did not let a blown save by Eric Gagne in the bottom of the ninth deflate them, instead coming back to win 4-3 in ten innings. Ryan Braun correctly pointed out after the win that “last year we would have lost a game like this a lot of times.” The victory is an early indication that the players are already maturing from last year’s team that choked away their division lead late in the season. Not only are the Brewers playing smarter, they’re also playing tougher — just ask Cubs catcher Geovany Soto after being drilled at home plate by a charging Rickie Weeks in Thursday’s game. The physical play resulted in two runs scored.

While the pitching of Ben Sheets (two hits in 6-1/3 innings) was largely responsible for the opening win, the formidable bats in the Brewers lineup led them to their next two victories, a 8-2 romp in Chicago and a 13-4 laugher against San Francisco in the home opener on Friday. After one week, the Brewers are second in the majors in runs scored, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t remain near the top of that list all season.

Seemingly everyone in the lineup has been contributing to the run total, but special mention must be made of Bill Hall, leading not only the team but the majors with seven RBIs, six of which he earned in the home opener — his career high. Newcomer Jason Kendall is batting at a .500 clip in the first week, including racking up a single, two doubles, and two RBIs (not to mention a walk and a stolen base) in Wednesday’s 8-2 victory against his former Cubs team. And Rickie Weeks set a franchise record and tied a National League record by scoring a run in seventeen straight games (dating back to last season), a streak that was snapped in Saturday’s loss.

So what’s not going well for Milwaukee? Center fielder Tony Gwynn, Jr. has been out of the lineup since Thursday’s game after a hamstring injury. Gwynn hopes to be back for next Tuesday’s opener against the Reds, but a stint on the 15-day disabled list isn’t out of the question. And pitcher Dave Bush probably made some fans wish that it was he who had been released and not Claudio Vargas after giving up six earned runs in 5-1/3 innings in Thursday’s 6-3 loss to the Cubs, the only blemish on the season thus far.

It’s easy to shrug off one week of success. After all, one look at the standings on Sunday morning — with the Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City Royals, and Florida Marlins in first place and the Detroit Tigers sitting as the majors’ only winless team — would indicate that much will change as the season progresses. But victories in April count as much as victories in September, and there’s nothing wrong with early optimism. One week in, the Brewers are giving their fans plenty of reasons to believe that this first week won’t be their last in first place.

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