With less than two percent of the major league season complete, it’s cliché but understandable for baseball fans whose teams have stumbled out of the gate to panic and tremble. The 2011 Milwaukee Brewers’ season saw John Axford blow a save on Opening Day in heart-breaking fashion and the team lost four straight to open the year. The Brewers then won 96 games that season to set a franchise record, and nearly won the NL pennant. Nothing is determined, illustrated or concrete in the nascent 2014 season; it only feels that way. Perception is reality right now, and even though the Brewers are a home run here or there from being 2-1, instead they’re 1-2 and heading into the lions’ den.
As for the Brewers’ pitching, it’s been pretty darn effective. Newcomer Matt Garza has proved his mettle so far, giving up one run while pitching eight dynamic innings in Wednesday’s epic pitching duel with the confounding Aaron Harang. The Brewers’ pitching staff has a 2.00 ERA and .0852 WHIP in three games. They gave up six total runs to a Braves team with a ton of offensive firepower. The problem, of course, is the sputtering Brewers bats.
The Brewers have one of the most difficult schedules in the NL in the first couple months of the season, and to borrow a Red Sox phrase from years past, they need to “cowboy up” in Boston on Friday or face another body blow to open the year. They managed to sneak past the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day in a 2-0 victory, however, one could feel the pendulum swing back the other way in Tuesday’s 5-2 loss. On Wednesday, Garza did his best Cy Young impersonation but the Brewers were sucker-punched by Chris Johnson’s home run and fell in a bitter 1-0 shutout. It’s not going to get any easier any time soon, so a team batting less than .190 needs to get its act together, particularly on the road, where they will face howling, hostile fans and formidable lineups and pitchers.
Facing the disheartening slate of three games in Boston to open Fenway Park for the season and then three in not-always-sunny Philadelphia for the same at Citizens Bank Park, the Brewers’ most-accomplished hitters need to figure out a way to turn it on. That “veteran savvy” needs to kick in, and fast. That’s rarely how it works in baseball, but that’s what this schedule demands. Should the Brewers drop four of six or worse on this upcoming trip out east, they’ll stare at the daunting prospect of returning home to Miller Park with at best a 3-6 record. Those results would beg a quick rebound in home series against the tough Pittsburgh Pirates (2-0 to open the season after two walk-off victories) and St. Louis Cardinals.
In 2013, the Brewers had a losing record at home (37-44, identical to their road record), so there’s plenty of room for improvement. There’s a sweetener series against the Chicago Cubs in April, but after the upcoming road trip to Boston and Philly, the remaining games this month feature a knuckle sandwich of six against the Pirates and six against the Cardinals, with a slice of unpredictable San Diego Padres in between. Ouch.
The Brewers face a stiff test right out of the gates in 2014, and that’s without more than a sideways glance at a dicey-looking May that includes series against the Reds, D-backs, Yankees and Orioles, along with more games against the Pirates and Braves. The Brewers face the Pirates nine times in the season’s first two months. Milwaukee trounced the Cubs in 2013, winning the season series 13-6, but against the rest of the NL Central, the Brew Crew suffered a 21-36 record against the Pirates, Reds and Cardinals. That’s not going to cut it in 2014.
Granted, it’s ridiculously early. It just feels late when Ryan Braun is hitting .091. It feels late when Lyle Overbay, Jean Segura, Mark Reynolds, Khris Davis and Jeff Bianchi are all hitting .000. It feels late when the Brewers have scored four runs all season. It feels late when the Brewers look like a team that can’t hit its way out of a wet paper bag but are scheduled to face many of the best teams from 2013 in the very near future. It feels late when already fans see missed opportunities mounting, when winnable games slip away. It feels late when the Brewers must hope to get solid outings from Marco Estrada, Wily Peralta and Yovani Gallardo in a rabid environment where the home team will receive World Series championship rings this weekend. The Brewers last played at Fenway in 2011, when they went 1-2. This time they’ll face the challenge of defeating right-handers Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz along with lefty Jon Lester.
Let’s go with the glass-half-full optimism, though. A poor start to the season doesn’t doom the 2014 Brewers. If they can at least take one out of three and avoid sweeps and long losing streaks, they’ll have a chance to get past April with a record around .500, and then we can worry about May. The pitching isn’t much of a concern, at least not yet. But they will need to hit a lot better than what they’ve shown when playing American League ball and facing powerhouse NL clubs. They must play better at Miller Park and refine their killer instinct to bury teams when they have the chance. The beginning of the 2014 season will be a meat-grinder for the Brewers. As a result, will they be fine sausage or the winner of the first few Klement’s races this year: the hot dog? Better late than never.