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Will Brewers' recent slump put first in NL Central up for grabs?

Carlos Gomez and the Brewers have lost nine of their last 10 games and have seen their lead in the NL Central shrink to just two games. Photo: Morry Gash/AP

Carlos Gomez and the Brewers have lost nine of their last 10 games and have seen their lead in the NL Central shrink to just two games.

A week and a half ago, the Milwaukee Brewers had a 6 1/2 game lead in the National League Central. Now, with the second-place Cardinals coming to town for a three-game set trailing the Brewers by only two games, Milwaukee faces the possibility of falling out of first place by the end of the weekend. That’s the result of a sudden team-wide slump that has seen the Brewers go 1-8 in their last nine games and score two or fewer runs in seven of those nine games.

The Cardinals head into Miller Park as the Brewers try to shake off a four-game sweep at the hands of the last-place Phillies. For their part, the Brewers are hoping to change their fortune by calling up their top pitching prospect, 25-year-old righty Jimmy Nelson, to start Saturday’s game in place of Marco Estrada, who has posted a 4.96 ERA in 18 starts on the season. For Nelson to make a difference, however, the Brewers have to start hitting again.

That’s a surprising area of concern for the Brewers, who trail only the park-assisted Rockies in runs per game in the National League this year. To this point, Milwaukee’s 2014 season can be broken into four sections. Their 20-7 start owed a great deal to their pitching staff, which allowed just 3.2 runs per game over those first 27 contests. Over their next 19 games, however, the pitching slumped to 4.6 runs allowed per game, while the offense, coping with injuries to both Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez, each of whom missed 11 of those 19 games, slumped worse. Milwaukee scored just 3.2 runs per game as the team went 7-12 (.368), shrinking its 6 1/2-game lead in the Central by five games. From there, the Brewers’ lineup hit its stride, scoring 5.6 runs per game over the teams’ next 37 contests as Milwaukee went 24-13 (.649), expanding its lead back to 6 1/2 games.

This latest slump, while thus far briefer, has been more severe than their early May swoon and has less obvious cause. True, Braun did miss three of four games earlier this week, but the Brewers have scored just six runs in the last four games he has started and have scored just 2.5 runs per game over their last 10 contests. Meanwhile, they have allowed more than twice that, a whopping 5.4 runs per game, over the same span.

Despite that ugly figure, the Brewers’ pitching problems are not widespread. Matt Garza, who shut out the Reds for the team’s only win in its last ten games and no-hit the Phillies for six innings on Thursday, has been excellent of late (2.34 ERA since the start of June), and Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse have also been pitching well, outside of one disaster start by Gallardo two turns ago. Even the now-displaced Estrada had been pitching better of late, falling one inning shy of three straight quality starts in his last outing. The problem has been two pitchers in particular: Sophomore starter Wily Peralta and lefty reliever Will Smith​, who have allowed 22 runs combined in the Brewers' last 10 games.

Peralta allowed four or more runs in five of seven starts prior to his most recent turn, posting a 5.15 ERA over that span, then on Tuesday gave up nine runs in under five innings (two of which scored after was pulled from the game). Smith, meanwhile, has faced 15 batters in July, nine of whom have come around to score, as have both of the runners he has inherited on the month (both from Garza on Thursday). That from a pitcher who had a 1.36 ERA and 11.1 K/9 coming into the month and had stranded 83 percent of the runners he had inherited. In Smith’s case, fatigue is very likely the issue. Only the Diamondbacks' Brad Ziegler has made more relief appearances than Smith’s 47 this season. The return from the disabled list in mid-June of fellow lefty Tom Gorzelanny should allow manager Ron Roenicke to back off Smith for a while, as might the impending return of former closer Jim Henderson.

As for Peralta, if Nelson’s promotion is a success, Roenicke will have an extra starter to work with and could always restore Estrada to the rotation if Peralta’s struggles continue. Nelson’s start on Saturday will be his third in the major leagues, and he allowed just one run in 10 2/3 innings in the first two, one of which came on the penultimate day of the season last September, the other in late May. Nelson also has five scoreless major league relief innings to his name. Drafted in 2010’s second round out of the University of Alabama, Nelson is a solidly built, 6-foot-6 righty who has gone 10-2 with a 1.46 ERA, 3.56 K/BB, and more than a strikeout per inning in 16 starts and one relief appearance for Triple-A Nashville this season. He’s been hit- and homer-lucky for Nashville, but his performance still translates to a solid Fielding Independent Pitching ERA of 2.94. He was a top-100 prospect coming into the season, and that was before he shed more than a walk per nine innings. Nelson isn’t a coming ace, but he’s important depth and an intriguing arm for a Brewers team looking to cash in their fantastic first half.

As for the offense, the Brewers could stand to make a move prior to the trading deadline for depth if nothing else. Ramirez is 36, Braun is 30 and proving increasingly fragile. Shortstop Jean Segura has been bad and getting worse all season, though awful luck on balls in play appears to be playing a part. Most damning, and most easily correctable, at least in theory, the team never did solve first base, where non-roster invitees Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay have contributed to an overall .227/.308/.367 batting line against a major league average of .258/.334/.436 at the position. That translates to a 76 sOPS+ (adjusted OPS relative to the league split at the position). With those two holes in a National League lineup, the Brewers' run scoring is particularly susceptible to slumps and injuries, and over those last ten games, five of the top six bats in the Brewers' order have gone cold to varying degrees, the exception being Braun, who has missed time due to a bad back.

I don’t think the Brewers are in serious trouble, and not simply because a recent spate of injuries has weakened their intradivision challengers, including the Yadier Molina-less Cardinals. Roenicke’s charges are entering a crucial phase, however. They can’t let their current slump deepen: After the Cardinals and the All-Star Break, the Brewers have to tangle with Nationals and Reds before a rematch against the Cardinals in St. Louis on August 1. By then, Milwaukee should have added at least one bat prior to the previous day’s deadline. Failure on either of those fronts could put the Brewers behind the eight-ball in the second half.

The Brewers have their work cut out for them this weekend. The Cardinals may have lost Molina, but they are getting Joe Kelly off the disabled list for Friday night’s game and Nelson will have to contend with Adam Wainwright on Saturday. Failure to win at least one of those two games will allow St. Louis to tie them atop the division with Peralta starting on Sunday. Pass the Cracker Jacks, this should be good.

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