MILWAUKEE (AP) — Eric Thames looked up at the television near his locker in the Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse in time to hear baseball analysts heaping praise on one of the majors’ most surprising teams.
The Brewers aren’t a secret anymore, not with a 5 1/2-game lead in the National League Central at the All-Star break.
“It’s good to see on TV, the press, everyone starting to realize that the team’s a force to be reckoned with,” Thames said with a smile Thursday before an early-evening team workout at Miller Park “I’m digging it. I’m ready to start the second half.”
It has been quite a season for a club that was supposed to be in the second full year of a rebuilding project. At 50-41, Milwaukee is in first place at the break for the fifth time in franchise history, and the first time since 2014.
Most of the key pieces from the 2014 team that collapsed in the second half were traded away or let go over the past couple of years, including Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez. The Brewers entered this season with a young, mainly unproven roster surrounding outfielder Ryan Braun and second baseman Jonathan Villar.
The defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs were expected to roll to another division title. But the Cubs have struggled, as have another perceived contender, the St. Louis Cardinals. Those teams are tied for second behind Milwaukee.
The Brewers have bashed their way to the top with an NL-best 138 home runs. Hard-throwing right-hander Corey Knebel has emerged as an All-Star closer. The team has weathered injuries to Braun and opening day starter Junior Guerra, as well as a disappointing first half for Villar.
Manager Craig Counsell’s team returns from the break to host the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday.
“I guess I’m surprised with where we’re sitting right now, with the (size of the) lead. I think everybody is in baseball,” Counsell said. “How we’ve played — not really that surprised. We’ve earned our record.”
Slick-fielding Orlando Arcia, 22, is hitting .283 with eight homers at shortstop, while in right, Domingo Santana has turned into a reliable, middle-of-the-order hitter. The 24 year-old Santana is hitting .291 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs.
On the mound, 28-year-old starter Jimmy Nelson (8-4, 3.30 ERA) has become a stabilizing presence. Chase Anderson (6-2, 2.89) also had a good first half before landing on the DL on July 1 with a left abdominal muscle injury.
A couple offseason moves by general manager David Stearns have especially paid off.
Thames has been a breakout star after hitting 11 of his 23 homers in April. After playing in Korea the previous three seasons, the bearded slugger has quickly become a fan favorite in Milwaukee because of his upbeat personality and prodigious power.
Third baseman Travis Shaw, who was acquired in December from Boston for reliever Tyler Thornburg, is tied for sixth in the NL with 65 RBIs. The left-handed bats of Thames and Shaw have helped balance what had been a mainly right-handed lineup.
Shaw is one of the few players in the clubhouse who has been in a pennant race after playing with the Red Sox last season. Now he is looking forward to another summer of meaningful games, especially after the Cubs bolstered their rotation on Thursday by acquiring left-handed starter Jose Quintana from the White Sox.
Asked if such a move adds more pressure in the Brewers clubhouse, Shaw said that “There’s more pressure on them than there is on us right now. They’re the defending champions.
“We weren’t supposed to be here, so we’re kind of playing with house money right now,” Shaw added. “At the same time, a 5 1/2-game lead, we kind of expect to keep that cushion and finish like we are right now.”