Opposite dugout: Brewers look to fend off division challengers coming out of break

brewers-logo.jpgManager: Ron Roenicke, fourth year
Record: 53-43
Last 10 games: 2-8
Who to watch: CF Carlos Gomez (.304/.370/.510, 24 doubles, 14 HR, 48 RBIs); C Jonathan Lucroy (.315/.385/.494, 32 doubles, 9 HR, 44 RBIs); RF Ryan Braun (.298/.348/.515, 19 doubles, 11 HR, 52 RBIs); RHP Kyle Lohse (9-4, 3.26 ERA, 1.09 WHIP)
Season series vs. Nats: 1-2, 11 runs scored, 9 runs allowed

Pitching probables
July 18: Kyle Lohse vs. Stephen Strasburg, 7 p.m., MASN HD
July 19: Matt Garza vs. Gio Gonzalez, 7 p.m., MASN HD
July 20: Yovani Gallardo vs. Doug Fister, 1:30 p.m., MASN HD

Series breakdown
What once was a comfortable division lead for the Brewers has dwindled to almost nothing as the National League Central frontrunners fell on hard times before the All-Star break.

Milwaukee, which held a 6 1/2-game edge over the rest of the pack as recently as July 1, resumes play with the Cardinals only one game back, the Reds 1 1/2 back and the Pirates 3 1/2 back.

The most comfortable first-place advantage in the majors is now the least as the Brewers arrive in Washington a desperate team hoping to rediscover their prior form while looking to fend off those three challengers.

Before winning its last game before the break, the Brewers had lost 11 of 12 to let the Cards draw even for first in the division. The 11-2 Milwaukee win in the series finale returned the edge to the Brewers.

One of the NL's best offenses has been quieted in recent weeks. Although the Brewers still rank second in the NL with 423 runs, 94 homers and a .728 OPS, they were held to 33 runs (2.8 per game) during the 12-game stretch that cost them their division lead.

Milwaukee scored more than four runs only twice during those 12 games while the pitching surrendered at least seven runs six times - not the best combination.

Center fielder Carlos Gomez leads the Brewers with an .880 OPS to go with 14 homers and 48 RBIs. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy has an .879 OPS, 32 doubles and 44 RBIs.

Right fielder Ryan Braun leads the team with 52 RBIs. Left fielder Khris Davis has hit 15 homers to lead five members of the squad who have reached double figures.

While many of the Brewers' threats have struggled during that tumble, Braun has done his part to try to keep the team afloat. He is batting .379 with a 1.058 OPS, nine extra-base hits and 13 RBIs over his last 15 games.

Milwaukee will have to hope that the 11-run outburst to close out baseball's unofficial first half was an indication that the slump is ending since it comes out of the break against the Nationals' major league-leading pitching staff.

Pitching has arguably been more of a problem for the Brewers over the last few weeks. The team's 4.99 ERA this month is the third-worst in the NL. Overall this year, Milwaukee is 10th in the NL with a 3.78 team ERA, ninth with a 3.86 starters' ERA and tied for eighth with a 3.86 bullpen ERA.

However, the Nats will have to contend with the Brewers' top three starters this weekend as the two teams line up for a trio of possible pitchers' duels.

Right-hander Kyle Lohse leads the rotation in ERA, but he has seen it jump from 2.60 to 3.26 over his last seven starts. He'll go head-to-head with Stephen Strasburg in tonight's opener.

Right-hander Matt Garza will face Gio Gonzalez on Saturday in a match-up of hot pitchers. Garza will look to stay that way after going 4-2 with a 2.53 ERA over his last nine starts, bringing his season totals to 6-6 and 3.69. Garza is two starts removed from tossing a shutout at Cincinnati. Gonzalez, on the other hand, has pitched to a 0.98 ERA over his last four starts.

Right-hander Yovani Gallardo will go up against Doug Fister in Sunday's series finale. Gallardo has struggled of late, allowing 12 earned runs in 17 1/3 innings over his last three starts to see his ERA leap from 3.23 to 3.68.

The Brewers might be having difficulty, but they come out of the break a team in need of wins with an exciting division race developing behind them. The Nats are in a similar spot, tied with the Braves atop the NL East, so that could make for a fantastic weekend of baseball between division leaders looking to hold onto their first-place perches.

Back at it
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