Taking the lead: Brewers get boost by striking first

MILWAUKEE (AP) The surprise leaders in the National League Central are off to a good start in part because of a penchant for taking early leads.

While they might be a young team, the Milwaukee Brewers are eager to prove they can keep up with anybody. Maybe even set the pace, too.

''That's one thing (that coaches) preach, or any baseball team - early leads, and then keep holding them, keep adding on,'' first baseman-outfielder Eric Thames said.

Going into the game Tuesday night against the San Francisco Giants, Milwaukee led the majors with a .328 average in the first inning, when they outscored opponents 55-17. They had a lead in 50 of 58 games this season, most in the NL, including each of the last 11 games.

The Brewers were tied atop the Central with the World Series champion Chicago Cubs going into Tuesday.

The benefits of being able to score first carry over when they go back on defense. Pitchers feel like they can be more aggressive working with a lead.

On Sunday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Thames homered in the first before Eric Sogard added an RBI single in the second to give starter Zach Davies an early 2-0 advantage. The right-hander finished with one of his best starts of the year , throwing three-hit ball into the seventh inning of a 3-0 victory.

Brewers starters are 5-1 with a 1.36 ERA over the last 11 games.

''You get to pitch with the lead, you get to pitch with a team that's ready to attack and that kind of translates into defense, too, so guys are ready to play,'' Davies said. ''You never really see this team flat, so it's nice. It's nice to see on both sides of the ball.''

Sogard, a 31 year-old utility infielder called up from Triple-A Colorado Springs last month, has given the Brewers a spark atop the lineup. Sogard is batting .444 with six runs, five RBIs and seven walks when starting as the leadoff hitter.

Sogard has shown a penchant for working counts. Leading off on Sunday, he struck out after falling behind 0-2, but still managed to extend his at-bat to nine pitches. Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda left after throwing 92 pitches over four innings.

At 30-28, the Brewers have benefited from slow starts by Chicago and St. Louis. They would be in fourth place if they were playing in the top-heavy NL West.

The bullpen has been a problem of late. The latest meltdown occurred in the 7-2 loss Monday to San Francisco, when the Giants scored three earned runs in the final two innings against relievers Rob Scahill and Neftali Feliz.

At the same time, the first two months of the season are a promising development for a franchise entering its second full year of rebuilding.

The minor-league system is filled with promising prospects. One of them, outfielder Brett Phillips, made his major-league debut on Monday to fill a roster spot while third baseman Travis Shaw was on paternity leave.

The first piece of the team's potential future core, slick-fielding shortstop Orlando Arcia, has been a regular since being called up last summer.

The youth is ''a reason why we've created such good energy every day in the dugout. Those are all positives to me,'' manager Craig Counsell said.

According to Thames, when the Brewers hit rough patches, that energy helps keep the team looking forward. Last weekend, the Brewers bounced back from two tough losses to the Dodgers, in which the bullpen blew late leads, with the win Sunday and Davies' stellar start.

''Oh yeah man,'' the often upbeat Thames said, ''we're legit.''

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More AP baseball: http://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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