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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Even early, Crew's finale win a big statement

Thanks to solid pitching, NL Central upstarts hang with powerful Cards

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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

MILWAUKEE -- Yes, inescapably, each of the 162 games counts the same.

But no matter what anybody tells you, Game No. 15 looked a lot like the biggest game of the season so far for the 2014 Brewers.

Milwaukee had to establish something -- anything -- other than defeat against the Cardinals. The Brewers' recent nine-game winning streak had been a thing of beauty for their fans. But it had been followed by two sobering defeats to the Redbirds, two games in which the Brewers had scored a total of one run.

The defending National League champion Cardinals are the biggest guys on the block in the NL Central. But it's more than that for the Brewers.

The Cardinals bounced the Brewers out of the postseason in the 2011 NL Championship Series. Since then, going into Wednesday, Milwaukee had gone 11-25 against St. Louis, including an unsightly 5-14 in 2013.

The Brewers demonstrated during their nine-game winning streak that they are an improved club, capable of competing for a postseason berth. But if you have those kinds of aspirations, you had better be able to compete on something resembling even terms with the best of teams.

On Wednesday at Miller Park against the Cardinals, the Brewers did just that, getting an extremely well-pitched game from Wily Peralta, who also contributed with his glove, recording six assists. The hitting was not overpowering, but it was timely.

It all added up to a 5-1 victory. Suddenly, the Brewers were back on an extremely positive note. They are not the team that could not beat the Cardinals. They are, instead, the team with the best record in the National League at 11-4.

"That's a pretty good team over there, and they've had some momentum going against us the past few years," said catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who had a crucial two-run single in the fifth. "So it was nice to get a win. We come off the homestand 4-2. If we can do that the rest of the year, we're going to be there at the end."

"They've got a great pitching staff," Peralta said of the Cardinals. "But we've got a lot of games left against them. We'll be fine."

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke acknowledged this was an important victory, but not necessarily because it occurred against the Cards.

"Obviously, I like beating everybody," Roenicke said. "What's really important, most important, is we lost two games at the beginning of the series, and we got [one] game back. And it's more important against our division, just because we don't want guys to take off.

"But we have to win more games than they do. It's not head-to-head. We have to win more games than they do, and that's what we're playing for."

The most encouraging part of the Brewers' early-season performance has been their pitching. The staff's ERA is 2.17, while the bullpen leads the Majors with a 1.33 ERA.

No bullpen will continue that kind of pace over an entire season, but the Milwaukee relievers look solid, individually and collectively. They produced 2 2/3 more shutout innings Wednesday. Lefty Will Smith, who has not been scored upon in eight appearances, got the last two outs in the seventh. Tyler Thornburg, who has given up one run in 9 2/3 innings, pitched a clean eighth. Closer Francisco Rodriguez, who has not been scored upon in seven appearances, worked a scoreless ninth.

"They're good," Roenicke said of his relievers. "I expect good things from them through the season. We'll try to manage them right, where we're not over-using them. I think Thornburg stepping in and doing what he's doing is huge. [Brandon] Kintzler goes down, and we've got a guy who picks up and is throwing the ball great.

"It's big with the guys you've got in there in the seventh and eighth innings, and then Frankie continues to do what he is doing in the ninth."

Smith has proven to be the most valuable sort of left-handed reliever, able to get both right-handed and left-handed hitters out.

"I knew we were going to have a good team," Smith said. "We have a bunch of solid pitchers on this team. The starting five is unreal. The bullpen is really good. The biggest thing is, we just have confidence and we believe in ourselves. That's what can set you apart."

Confidence and belief become easier commodities to retain after a team wins nine games in a row. But in the case of the Brewers, the occasional victory over the St. Louis Cardinals definitely doesn't hurt these causes, either.

The Cardinals remain at the head of the class until somebody else can prove otherwise over an entire season. But the Brewers are doing enough to consider themselves legitimate contenders.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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