Conrad's first Brewers blast backs Marcum

Conrad's first Brewers blast backs Marcum

Conrad's first Brewers blast backs Marcum
MILWAUKEE -- Ryan Braun suggested that jetlag was behind the Brewers' Friday night funk, and perhaps he was right. On Saturday, even with Braun resting a stiff Achilles and four sub-.200 hitters in the starting lineup, the Brewers were well-rested and looking like the team that swept through Los Angeles earlier in the week, the one that maybe, just maybe, can pitch its way back into the picture in the National League Central.

It's possible, assuming the Brewers have any healthy players left at the All-Star break.

A 5-1 victory over the Pirates at Miller Park was the Brewers' fifth in their last six games, a well-played win marred only by the loss of third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who exited in the seventh inning with a strained left quadriceps.

Ramirez's issue is not considered serious. That qualified as very good news for a club that has already absorbed some body blows.

"We still have a good group of guys, [and] if we lose here and there, nobody gets down on themselves," said right-hander Shaun Marcum, who began the Brewers' recent run with a seven-inning gem in Los Angeles and continued it with another against the Pirates on Saturday. "We know we have a good team. We know we've run into some injury problems, but the guys who have come up have done a great job of filling in and playing the game the right way."

Two such fill-ins accounted for all of the Brewers' runs on Saturday.

Utility man Brooks Conrad started at first base and at long last logged his first Brewers hit, a two-run home run, and led the way with three RBIs. Shortstop Cody Ransom hit a two-run single and made the game's signature defensive play, a diving stop in the sixth inning that bailed Marcum out of a jam.

The Brewers' Opening Day starters at those positions, Mat Gamel and Alex Gonzalez, are lost for the season to right knee injuries.

"Finally doing something productive offensively feels great," Conrad said.

He was not alone. Slumping second baseman Rickie Weeks, who entered the night hitting .158, had his first multihit game in six weeks and stole a base for the first time in more than a month. He finished with two steals, and reached safely four times for the first time this season.

Manager Ron Roenicke conceded this weekend that his injury-battered ballclub will need contributions from some surprise sources if Milwaukee is to re-emerge as a contender in the NL Central. Conrad would qualify. He's a .405 hitter at Triple-A Nashville this season, but was 0-for-27 with a walk in two stints with the Brewers entering Saturday's start at first base.

He logged his first RBI on a sacrifice fly in the second inning, when the Brewers loaded the bases with nobody out against Pirates starter Erik Bedard but managed only one run.

In the fourth, the Brewers broke through on Ransom's two-run single followed by Conrad's two-run home run, a slump-busting hit that marked his first in the Major Leagues since Sept. 4, 2011, with the Braves against the Dodgers. Since that game, Conrad was 0-for-36 in the Majors before his homer.

"Big for Brooks to bust out there and contribute," Roenicke said. "Those were some big runs."

Conrad's teammates greeted him in the dugout as if he'd just belted a game-winning grand slam.

"You feel for guys when they struggle, and when they come through big, it's a great feeling for everybody," Roenicke said.

Said Conrad: "All along, I stayed with my same approach, stayed positive as best I could, and it paid off today. I got up there in a big spot and came through for the team, and it felt great."

The four-run fourth inning came immediately after Marcum surrendered a tying home run to Pirates right fielder Garrett Jones, who hit a down-the-middle, 85 mph fastball. It was one of Marcum's few mistakes.

His defense helped Marcum escape trouble in the sixth inning, when the Pirates opened with successive singles. Ramirez dove to snag a line drive bound for left field, left fielder Norichika Aoki made a running catch near the foul line and Ransom teamed with Weeks for a slick, inning-ending forceout.

Ransom dove to stop Neil Walker's grounder from reaching center field and flipped the baseball to a streaking Weeks, who caught the ball and stepped on second base in the same instant.

"We had a shift on with the lefty up, so I was really hoping he'd get there," Ransom said of his double-play partner. "He's fast. It worked out great."

Ransom credited Marcum.

"It's a lot easier to play defense when you have a pitcher hit his spots and let them put it in play," he said.

Marcum scattered five hits in his second consecutive seven-inning, one-run performance. He struck out eight batters, walked none, threw 112 pitches and saw his ERA fall to 3.39.

"Marcum was the same guy I've seen for three years," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I prepped him for the Rangers [in 2010, when Hurdle was Texas' batting coach]. He hasn't changed. You have to make a commitment to hit the soft stuff; they were aware of what they had to do going in, and that was the disappointing part. You're gonna get the fastball early for strike one, then he's going to shave [velocity] or spin and go soft. He continues to challenge hitters' discipline and bite -- and we bit."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.