The Milwaukee Brewers just keep turning up the heat. Sunday's 4-1 victory over Pittsburgh capped off a third consecutive series sweep -- first at Boston, then at Philadelphia before this weekend's home series against the Pirates -- extended their winning streak to nine, and made the Brewers the major league's first team to 10 wins.
The Brewers haven't just been winning; they've been consistently dominant throughout the streak. Milwaukee has outscored opponents by 28 runs, more than double every other National League team. They trailed at no point against either the Red Sox or Pirates, and they trailed for just two-and-a-half innings against Philadelphia. Their 29 runs allowed is the best mark in the majors.
Centerfielder and new leadoff hitter Carlos Gomez continues to play like an MVP. He earned his first Gold Glove and was the only batter to hit 20 home runs and steal 35 bases in 2013. The energetic righty leads the club with four home runs and is hitting .373/.411/.706. Ryan Braun emerged from an early slump with a three-homer game in the series opener against Philadelphia and owns a .295 batting average with a .568 slugging mark. Jonathan Lucroy continues to make a name as an elite catcher with a .997 OPS and just six strikeouts in his first 11 games. And Aramis Ramirez has been uncharacteristically great to begin April, leading the team with a .380 batting average and 19 hits.
Kyle Lohse's near-complete game gem Sunday extended the rotation's streak of starts with three or fewer earned runs allowed to 26 games, dating back to the final 14 games of last season. His 3.05 ERA is the worst of the five-man rotation, which has given up just 25 runs in 12 starts and has struck out 67 batters against just 22 walks. Yovani Gallardo has been particularly impressive after a brutal 2013, not giving up a run until the third inning of his third start.
The bullpen has been even better, as only LOOGY Zach Duke has given up more than one earned run. Jim Henderson, Will Smith and Brandon Kintzler (placed on the disabled list after Saturday's game) have thrown 18 combined scoreless appearances covering 15 2/3 innings. Tyler Thornburg has given up a run in his 7 2/3 innings, but has struck out 10 without issuing a single walk. And surprise closer Francisco Rodriguez has struck out 11 of the 19 batters he has faced in six scoreless outings, allowing just one walk and one hit.
In 2007, the Brewers won 83 games to go over .500 for the first time since 1992. Since then, star power in Milwaukee has been a constant, with players like Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Ben Sheets, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Carlos Gomez, Trevor Hoffman, Francisco Cordero, Yovani Gallardo, Jean Segura and Braun all making All-Star appearances in Brewers uniforms. The core of this club -- Braun, Gomez, Lucroy and Aramis Ramirez on offense; Gallardo, Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse in the rotation -- is strong again. But the club has been an on-again off-again contender because of a failure to maintain a strong supporting cast.
This year's club might just have those role players. Consider the bottom of the rotation. Marco Estrada has allowed just three runs in his first two starts and now has a 3.69 ERA over 46 starts in his past three seasons in Milwaukee. Wily Peralta posted a 3.48 ERA in 21 starts from June onward last season, has given up three earned runs in his first two starts, and has hit 99 mph with his fastball. Mark Reynolds has proven a massive upgrade over the trash heap the Brewers played at first last season, with three early home runs and some fantastic defense to his credit. And the bullpen looks deep, with Henderson, Thornburg and Will Smith all serving as excellent setup options for Rodriguez.
Of course, any 10-2 start has its unsustainable aspects, and Milwaukee's is no different. The club's 1.80 ERA is destined to go up and its .324 BABIP is bound to come down. And there were the lucky moments, too -- like the Pirates running themselves into a 2-6-1 double play with the go-ahead run on third in the eighth inning Saturday night and catcher Tony Sanchez throwing away a dropped third strike to let in two runs Sunday afternoon.
And there are some legitimate concerns with the roster. Will Jean Segura manage to reverse the hellacious slump he fell into in the second half of 2013? Segura has hit 27 ground balls in 36 balls in play thus far and has looked lost at the plate. Braun's thumb injury will be a lingering concern all season, as it sapped his power and cost him games in 2013 and flared up early in the season this year. Khris Davis was supposed to be a power threat in left field, but has yet to homer and has 14 strikeouts without a walk thus far.
But make no mistake; the Brewers have already established themselves as playoff contenders. Saturday's win pushed the Brewers' playoff odds at Baseball Prospectus over 50 percent. They need to go just 78-72 to finish with 88 wins or 80-70 for 90 wins, the win totals of the second wild cards the past two seasons. If you believed the Brewers were roughly a .500 team entering the season -- as many Vegas lines and projections systems did -- such a performance over the season's remaining 150 games wouldn't be much of a stretch.
The Brewers are still clear underdogs in the National League Central division to their next opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals, who lurk three games back at 7-5. Milwaukee has played 12 great games thus far, but the season is less than 10 percent over, and even a short rough stretch can undo the work they've done thus far. But the Brewers couldn't ask for a better start, either by results or by quality of play. After a brutal Wisconsin winter, this hot spring start was just what Milwaukee baseball needed.