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Ryan Braun and the Milwaukee Brewers lineup has struggled at times this season. (PHOTO: David Bernacchi)

Brewers looking for consistency

The crack of wood on rawhide bounced along the brick and concrete in the bottom of Miller Park, the shadows of the follow through creeping over the enclosed indoor batting cage nearly four hours before first pitch against St. Louis Thursday night.

Two days before, Rickie Weeks had gotten to the park nearly seven hours before game time to get in extra work with Milwaukee Brewers hitting coach Johnny Narron, to "punish himself" in the cage after his slow start at the plate.

Weeks is one of four regulars to be hitting under .260 on the season, and three Brewers who have played more than four games were hitting over .290.

For a team that ended the 2012 campaign leading the National League in runs scored, home runs and stolen bases, the offense has been somewhat of a concern through the first month of the season. Despite scrapping back from a 2-8 start, the Brewers have been shut out three times and held to three runs or less eight times (all losses).

In a 6-5 loss Thursday night to the Cardinals, the Brewers scratched out one run against Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook and four off the bullpen.

Westbrook entered the game with a 0.98 earned run average over his first four starts of the season. The Cardinals follow him up with Shelby Miller (2.05 ERA) tonight, Adam Wainwright (2.03) on Saturday and Jaime Garcia (2.50) on Sunday.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said that against starting pitchers who throw first pitch strikes as often as that quartet does, the key is to take advantages of whatever run-scoring chances that might present themselves.

"You're going to get people on base and when you have that opportunity to score, we really need to score," he said. "We can't get bases loaded and one out and not score anybody. You can't have a guy at third base and they've got the infield back and we strike out. Those things, I know they're going to happen, but if you're going to beat a team like this with the good pitching they have, you can't consistently do that and give away runs."

To do that, especially against quality starting pitching, is to get to that pitcher early in the game – something the Brewers have been good at so far this season. Heading into Thursday night's contest the Brewers had scored 64 of their 122 runs in the first three innings.

"You've got to find a way to get to those guys early," Ryan Braun said of quality starters.

Of course, that's easier said than done. In the first inning Thursday, Norichika Aoki led off with a double. Jean Segura and Braun could not advance him. Yuniesky Betancourt walked, but Weeks grounded out.

"The offense is sometimes is going to be really good, but a lot of that has to do with who we're facing," Roenicke said. "When you're facing a guy like (Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton) Kershaw (in a Brewers shutout Sunday), I don't think anybody's going to hit him when he's pitching like that. It's hard to say hey, the offense is going now, because a lot of that depends on the pitcher and how you're facing and how good they are that night."

The Brewers finally touched Westbrook in the fourth inning – a point in the game where the offense has slowed this season – with three consecutive one-out singles. But, Alex Gonzalez and Wily Peralta struck out to end the threat.

In the seventh, a Segura sacrifice fly scored Logan Schafer and moved Aoki to third – but Braun struck out. Betancourt was hit by a pitch and Weeks and Gomez followed with walks to score Aoki and make it 6-3, but Maldonado struck out to end the inning.

Braun rallied an inning later by scoring Blake Lalli on a single, but Betancourt left Aoki stranded at third. In the ninth, Gonzalez made it a one-run game with a run-scoring single but pinch-hitter Jonathan Lucroy struck out to the end the game.

The Brewers finished with 12 hits on the night, but left 13 men on base in going just 3 for 14 with men in scoring position.

"That's the game," Maldonado said. "Nobody wants to strike out, nobody wants to miss a pitch to hit. But we hit the ball good – it wasn't great – but we hit the ball good. We a lot of hard balls right at people. It only takes just one big hit to change the game and we really didn't make it. It's good when you've got a team fighting back. It shows a lot from us."

Part of that can be attributed to the lack of production in the cleanup spot after Aramis Ramirez went down with a knee injury after the fourth game of the season.

Since that time, the No. 4 spot in the Brewers lineup has produced a .183 average, .271 on base percentage while striking out 32 times and driving in just nine runs. That spot has yet to produce a homerun yet, either.

Ramirez is slated to return during this series, and if he can regain the early form he showed (.385 average) that will undoubtedly help that cause, even though Betancourt has filled in admirably.

"Everybody has to contribute," Roenicke said. "We can't have just the one through three or one through four doing it. Everybody has to chip in. When you have guys that are hurt, your big guys that go down, if you don't have a lot of help from your guys that maybe you don't expect to give much to your offense, you're going to have a tough time winning. People need to step up and we need that from our whole lineup."


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