Brewers photo

From left, Ryan Braun, Trent Grisham and Christian Yelich celebrate Friday night's win over the Diamondbacks at Miller Park.

MILWAUKEE — It was about this time last year that the Milwaukee Brewers caught fire.

Just in time, too. Trailing the Chicago Cubs by 4½ games and the St. Louis Cardinals by a half-game in the National League Central Division with 37 games to play, Milwaukee went 27-10 the rest of the way to tie Chicago, then defeated the Cubs in Game 163 for the division title.

The Brewers find themselves in a strikingly similar position this year. They trail the Cardinals by 3½ games and the Cubs by two with 33 to play. They were also in a tight, five-team race for two NL wild card spots, though they stood fifth in that line on Saturday morning.

Can the Brewers catch fire again after muddling through the past three months with a 35-36 record?

On paper, their task looks a bit easier because they aren’t quite as far behind in the standings and neither the Cubs nor Cardinals are playing great baseball, either. In reality, though, it will be tougher for the Brewers to make the playoffs this year. Much tougher.

The reason is the Brewers themselves. They’ve done nothing since May to suggest they are good enough or consistent enough to get on a roll like they did last year. Their offense is all-or-nothing, their starting pitchers seldom see the sixth inning and the once-dynamic bullpen, which carried the Brewers last September, has become their weakest link. The Brewers are still competitive and resilient, but attitude alone won’t get them on the roll they need if they hope to play in October. And with no August trade deadline this year, any reinforcements must come from within.

It helps that the Cubs and Cardinals are on pace for only 88 wins. Should either of them reach that modest figure, the Brewers still would have to go 21-12 down the stretch just to tie.

For a team that is a mere five games over .500 after 129 games, a team that followed last weekend’s 14-inning, 15-14 thriller over the Washington Nationals with three straight non-competitive losses, a team that doesn’t know what it’s getting from its hitters or pitchers from one game to the next, winning two out of every three games for the rest of the season is simply not realistic.

If nothing else, everyone is fully aware of what must happen in the final five weeks. The Brewers need to pick up the pace, then maintain it.

“We’ve got to win games,” manager Craig Counsell said. “However that happens, we’ve got to win games. We’re within striking distance. As long we’re in striking distance, we’ve got a shot. That’s how I feel and I think that’s how we all feel. I think we also all feel that we’ve got to win games at a better clip than we’ve been winning. I guess that’s urgency.”

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Unless urgency translates into improved consistency, the Brewers are done. Still, there seems to be a confidence both inside and outside of the Brewers clubhouse that they’ll turn it on when they need to, just like last year. Unfortunately, this isn’t the same team as last year.

Despite having the big bats of Travis Shaw and Jesus Aguilar go silent, the offense has matched last season’s power. What it hasn’t matched is last season’s consistent production.

There are two reasons for that. With a .398 on-base percentage, leadoff man Lorenzo Cain was the supreme table-setter last season, but his rare down year — his OBP is .321 — has cost the Brewers runs. Inexplicably, the team also ranks 26th in the major leagues with a .247 batting average with runners in scoring position.

Despite those numbers, Counsell sees offense as the biggest hope for the Brewers, especially now that rookies Keston Hiura and Trent Grisham are up to speed.

“I think we have a talented group,” he said. “Our lineup that we’re running out there (now) I think is capable of putting up consistent (numbers). I think they’re capable of putting up a stretch of 10 days where we average six or seven runs a game. I think that’s the group that can really lead this. Good runs take a lot of guys on your roster adding to wins. I certainly think offensively we’re capable of a sustained run.”

Even if the offense stabilizes, there is little to suggest the pitching staff can match its performance from the end of last season, when Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley and August trade acquisition Gio Gonzalez gave the Brewers good enough starts to get to a bullpen anchored by the Electric Boys — Corey Knebel, Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress — and augmented by precocious power arms Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes.

But due to injury or ineffectiveness, four starters from the Brewers’ Opening Day staff aren’t on the active roster — including Chacin, who was designated for assignment on Saturday. In recent weeks, the makeshift rotation has given them mostly solid starts, but all five struggle to get past the fifth inning, putting extra work on a bullpen that no longer inspires confidence. Knebel hasn’t pitched an inning, Jeffress has had a lost season and Hader has been cracking under the workload. Woodruff, Brent Suter and Jimmy Nelson are all possibilities for the rotation as they recover from injuries, but none appears close to starting in the big leagues before mid-September. By then, it might be too late.

One ray of hope is that the Brewers have the Cubs and Cardinals right where they want them — on the schedule. Of their next 18 games, 13 are against their two division rivals. Of course, they still have to beat those teams and they don’t have a winning record against either one.

At this point, the Brewers’ disappointing 67-62 record is irrelevant. A dearth of great teams in the NL has kept them in playoff contention.

They have to catch fire, however, and after months of one-step-forward, two-steps-back play, it’s hard to envision that happening.


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Contact Tom Oates

at toates@madison.com.