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updated: 5/2/2014 12:16 AM

Brewers leading division certainly a surprise

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  • Manager Ron Roenicke's Milwaukee Brewers (20-8) have been the big surprise in the NL Central a month into the season.

    Manager Ron Roenicke's Milwaukee Brewers (20-8) have been the big surprise in the NL Central a month into the season.
    Associated Press


Things did not go as expected in the National League Central in April, except for the Cubs holding down last place.

They have faced every team in the division, and their Gateway Arch rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, visit Wrigley Field for three games this weekend.

The Cubs finished March/April with a record of 9-17, or 1 game worse than April 2013.

The Cardinals were the odds-on favorites to repeat as NL Central champions, but they needed a series-ending victory at home Wednesday over Milwaukee to get within 5½ games of the surprising Brewers, who lead the division.

The Reds and Pirates, who won the wild-card spots last year, have struggled out of the gate. May figures to be an important month for the NL Central as the division and wild-card races begin to take shape. Let's take a look at it, from top to bottom.

Brewers: Milwaukee is off to a 20-8 start, but there are some caution flags. The bullpen was beat up this week at St. Louis, with manager Ron Roenicke turning to catcher Martin Maldonado to pitch in Wednesday's 9-3 loss to the Cardinals.

The Brewers became the fourth team in major-league history to reach 20 victories before May, but they know things can change quickly, especially with the injury bug recently having bitten Ryan Braun, Jean Segura and ex-Cubs Aramis Ramirez and Matt Garza. None of those players is on the disabled list, but the Brewers' depth has been tested.

"We showed tenacity," catcher Jonathan Lucroy told the media. "That's important down the stretch. Now it's May. It is important for us not to let up."

Cardinals: The Cards come to town with a lackluster (for them) 15-14 record.

"We understand the fact that (the Brewers) are playing really good baseball, and that's what we plan on people saying about us at some point in the near future and hopefully the rest of the way through," manager Mike Matheny told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"Everyone at this point we believe could be the launching point for an extended stretch of really good baseball. We're set and we're due for a good long run."

The Cardinals entered their off-day Thursday ranked 22nd in the big leagues in batting average with runners in scoring position (.226). Remember last year, when they hit a crazy .330 with RISP and led baseball? No, they haven't lost their "clutch" ability. They're proving again how random that stat really is.

Reds: The best news for the Reds is that hard-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman pitched Thursday in a rehab game for Class A Dayton. Chapman suffered a facial fracture in spring training, when he was hit by a line drive.

The Reds (12-15), who just split a rain-shortened two-game series with the Cubs in Cincinnati, have yet to hit their stride offensively, as they rank 11th in runs and on-base percentage in the NL. Pitcher Homer Bailey also has struggled, as he's off to a 1-2 start with a 6.15 ERA.

Pirates: Last year's darlings are just trying to play baseball. Two games this week against the Orioles were rained out, and the teams played a Thursday doubleheader.

Here's an oddity: From March 31, when the Pirates opened against the Cubs, they played no one but teams from their own division entering Thursday.

"I know when you play well, it's easier to gauge things," manager Clint Hurdle told "When you're in the state of the game that we are right now, we're not meeting the demands of the game. When you don't meet the demands of the game nightly, you put yourself at the mercy of the game."

Injuries to closer Jason Grilli, starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez and catcher Russell Martin haven't helped the Bucs, who need to turn it on quickly.

Cubs: The record isn't unexpected, but there are a few good signs.

Shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo are off to strong starts with the bat, showing that perhaps they are on their ways to bounce-back years.

Castro is at .308/.339/.471 with 4 homers and 14 RBI. Rizzo's line is .283/.407/.457 with 4 homers and 12 RBI. If those two players stay near those paces, the Cubs should be ecstatic.

Under the radar of late has been the bullpen. On the five-game road trip, the pen pitched 13 scoreless innings, giving up 7 hits and 2 walks for a WHIP of 0.69.

Lefty Wesley Wright has pitched scoreless ball in his last seven games, and Hector Rondon may be emerging as the closer.

One cautionary note is that left-hander James Russell has not pitched since April 23. Russell logged 74 appearances last year and 77 in 2012 and is off to a rough start, with a 1.94 WHIP and 2 blown saves.

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