Opposite dugout: Brewers aim to regain form after letting Cubs catch up

brewers-logo.jpgManager: Craig Counsell (3rd season)

Record: 53-48

Last 10 games: 3-7

Who to watch: C Manny Piña (.294), 1B Eric Thames (23 HR), 3B Travis Shaw (70 RBIs, 22 HR, 24 doubles), 2B Jonathan Villar (19 SB), LF Ryan Braun (.272/.356/.562), RHP Corey Knebel (1.75 ERA, 17 saves)

Season series vs. Nationals: First meeting (4-2 in 2016)

Pitching probables:

July 25: RHP Edwin Jackson vs. RHP Zach Davies, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
July 26: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. RHP Jimmy Nelson, 7:05 p.m., MASN
July 27: RHP Max Scherzer vs. RHP Matt Garza, 12:05 p.m., MASN

Inside the Brewers:

As the Cubs have finally begun to resemble last year's championship team, the Brewers have started the second half in a funk, going 3-7 since the All-Star break and losing seven of their last eight games. The Brew Crew's lead in the National League Central, 5 1/2 games at the break, has gone into the tank faster than Bernie Brewer sliding into his stein. But with a combination of speed and power that has them leading the league in both stolen bases and home runs, the Brewers aren't conceding anything yet. And their star player is back in the lineup after a long absence.

The Brewers appear to have gotten the better of the offseason deal with the Red Sox that brought third baseman Travis Shaw (.294/.361/.567) to Milwaukee in exchange for righty Tyler Thornberg (now on the 60-day disabled list) and two prospects. In 2017, Shaw has handily bested the numbers he had for the Boston club. With this season barely beyond the halfway point, Shaw's team-leading 70 RBIs are just one shy of his total in 145 games last year. Manny Piña (.294/.335/.450) is hitting better in his first full major league season than most would expect from a rookie catcher. First baseman Eric Thames (.251/.369/.537) provided the feel-good story of the early season this year, getting off to a torrid start at the plate for the Brewers in his return to the majors after spending the last four seasons playing in Korea. However, Thames' average and home run pace have been in general decline since his sizzling April. Veteran Brewers star Ryan Braun, struggling with a calf problem, has done two terms on the disabled list this year, which has kept him from hitting the sorts of numbers he's had in past years. But on Saturday in Philadelphia, Braun reminded us just how potent he can be, driving in four runs while going 3-for-3 with a walk, a double and a home run. After sending badly slumping outfielder Keon Broxton to the minors last week, the Brewers are now without one of their top two basestealing threats. But between second baseman Jonathan Villar (19 steals), right fielder Domingo Santana (9), shortstop Orlando Arcia (8), Shaw (7) and Braun (6), Nationals pitchers will need to keep a close watch on the basepaths.

Zach Davies, who starts for the Brewers in tonight's series opener, has been the rotation's chief beneficiary of run support, posting an 11-4 record despite a 4.76 ERA. He's also been able to hang around long enough to notch wins, going fewer than five innings only once, in his first start of the season. Davies' last victory came at home against the Phillies on July 14, when he gave up six runs on seven hits over 5 1/3 innings. With his hard sinker and mid-90s fastball, Wednesday starter Jimmy Nelson (8-5, 3.43 ERA) has held opposing batters to a .212 average with runners in scoring position. Veteran Matt Garza (4-5, 3.83 ERA) starts Thursday's finale for the Brewers. He took a hard-luck loss on July 21 at Philadelphia, giving up just two runs on three hits and three walks while striking out four over five innings. Garza has logged an 0-3 record with a 19.85 ERA in four appearances at Nationals Park.

Right-handers Jacob Barnes, Oliver Drake, Jared Hughes and Carlos Torres have done the bulk of the short-relief work for the Brewers, with Barnes leading the team in holds (18). Corey Knebel uses a 98 mph four-seamer and a knuckle curve in his work as the Brewers' designated ninth-inning doorslammer. He has blown five save opportunities while converting 17 this year.

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