MILWAUKEE -- Ryan Braun has witnessed Jimmy Nelson's development from the start, or at least from the first day the former second-round Draft pick showed up for the first time in Milwaukee's big league Spring Training camp. Braun knows exactly how Nelson got from that day to Friday, when the right-hander pitched the Brewers to a 1-0 win over the Nationals in front of 40,044 fans at Miller Park in the thick of a pennant race.
There's no secret, Braun says. It was hard work. Really hard work.
"Neurotic. OCD. He's intense," said Braun, describing Nelson between his times on the mound. "A lot of times, he's here at 10:30, 11 [a.m.] for a 7 o'clock game. Most guys are here earlier than the fans realize, but this guy is here two hours earlier than everybody. A lot of times, nobody knows what he's actually doing, but he's convinced himself that everything he does leads to the success he's having.
"He really does work as hard or harder than anybody that I've ever played with. It's really cool to see him have the success that he's had."
Nelson's success -- he scattered three singles in seven scoreless innings and matched his career high with 11 strikeouts Friday -- has not come easily nor swiftly. This is his third full season, and he had two partial seasons before that. In 2016, Nelson led the Brewers with 179 1/3 innings but tied for the National League lead with 16 losses and led the Majors with 86 walks and 17 hit batsmen.
But in 2017, he has risen to the top of the rotation for a Brewers team significantly ahead of schedule in a rebuilding project. Nelson has a 3.59 ERA, which would be a career best. His 10.14 strikeouts per nine innings is good for ninth among qualifying Major League starters, and his 4.8 wins above replacement, by the FanGraphs measure, is fourth. By that metric, Nelson has been slightly less valuable than Max Scherzer (5.1) and slightly more valuable than Zack Greinke (4.7).
He has gotten there by striking out far more batters, and walking far less. Nelson is eight whiffs shy of the Brewers' 10th season with 200 or more strikeouts. If manager Craig Counsell pushes Nelson every fifth day the rest of the way, he will have six more starts in the regular season.
"He is one of the biggest reasons we've had the amount of success we've had as a team," Braun said.
The Nationals had opportunities to break Nelson early. They put a runner in scoring position in each of the first two innings, then loaded the bases with one out in the third as Nelson struggled to find his fastball command.
But catcher Stephen Vogt noticed that Nelson's breaking stuff was sharp, so he started putting down those fingers. Nelson caught Howie Kendrick looking at a slider for one strikeout, then fanned Jayson Werth with a curveball to preserve the Brewers' 1-0 lead.
That score held up through the end of the Brewers' 11th 1-0 win at Miller Park. When Counsell pulled back Nelson for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the seventh, the crowd rewarded Nelson's effort with an ovation.
"Having the fans with the energy and the excitement, it definitely helps us a lot," Nelson said. "We love it. It gets loud -- especially when the roof and those panels are closed. I took notice there in that inning they got the bases loaded and worked out of it. That was definitely huge."
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.