ST. PETERSBURG -- Apparently, all the Brewers needed to snap out of their slump was a matchup against one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Finally capitalizing on the team's recent string of solid starts -- it was Yovani Gallardo this time -- Brewers hitters had the patience to drive up David Price's pitch count and the resolve to score in four different innings for a 5-0 win over the Rays at Tropicana Field on Wednesday.
Gallardo extended his scoreless streak to 16 2/3 innings by limiting the red-hot Rays to a walk and four singles over seven frames, backup catcher Martin Maldonado matched a career high with four RBIs and Francisco Rodriguez was called upon to record a one-out save when the Rays loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning. Considering his team had lost four of its previous five games and had off-days scheduled Thursday and Monday, manager Ron Roenicke wasn't taking any chances.
"We had to win this game, no doubt," Roenicke said.
By avoiding a three-game sweep, the 60-49 Brewers ensured they would enter a weekend showdown in St. Louis alone atop the National League Central.
The Brewers doubled their scoring output from the first two games of the series during their first six innings against popular trade target Price, who worked seven innings in all and was charged with four runs (three earned) on seven hits. He walked two and struck out six in his first loss since falling in Houston on June 20, a span of seven starts.
Maldonado started the Brewers' scoring with a two-run single amid Price's two-walk, two-hit, 31-pitch second inning. Maldonado then added a run-scoring double off Price in the sixth and a run-scoring single in the eighth against reliever Kirby Yates.
"That feels good, especially when they're going for the sweep and they have their best pitcher on the mound," Maldonado said. "I think everybody was trying to be patient at the plate and swing at good pitches, especially when that's a great pitcher over there. You have to calm yourself down a little bit and hit your pitch."
Hitting has been problematic for the Brewers of late, at the same time their starting pitchers are in a rhythm. With Gallardo's outing Wednesday, members of the starting rotation own a 1.72 ERA and nine quality starts in the team's past 10 games.
But the offense has been maddeningly inconsistent, in spite of overall numbers that say the Brewers own the NL's best offense below 5,000 feet. Only the altitude-aided Rockies rank better among the league's 15 teams in runs scored, home runs, RBIs, total bases, slugging percentage and OPS.
Those numbers fudge the recent reality, Roenicke said in candid comments earlier in the day.
"Well, it depends on what you think the best offense is," he said. "If you're talking about runs scored -- runs scored don't always tell the whole story. Runs scored can be in a month. You have a super month, and it carries you for a while. So I think that's a little misleading. I think when you look at an offense, you should look at what the consistency is of an offense and scoring runs.
"The streakiness is what is hard. Because we're getting some great pitching -- our starters have really been throwing the ball well -- and when you're not scoring, it's easy to say, 'Well, your offense is fine, you're second in the league.' Well, no. Our offense isn't fine. We were great for a month and a half, and we need to get back to a better offense."
That month and a half spanned the very end of May and most of June, when the Brewers climbed as high as 19 games over .500 and 6 1/2 games ahead of their closest NL Central challenger. In June, the Brewers' 5.43 runs per game led all of Major League Baseball -- nearly a half-run per game better than the next NL team. But those numbers plummeted during a difficult July. The Brewers averaged 3.52 runs per game for the month and entered Wednesday with a .649 OPS in July -- 13th of 15 NL teams. It's a big reason they went 9-16 and saw their division lead trimmed.
Wednesday's win finished the month on a positive, but Roenicke cited room for improvement. The top three hitters in Milwaukee's lineup -- Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun -- were a combined 2-for-37 in the series, with 11 strikeouts.
"Our front part of the offense has to get going for us to do this," Roenicke said "You know when the first guys are doing it and you are adding on at the bottom, that's when we are really good. For that month and a half, everyone was swinging it, and we were outstanding."