Posted: Sunday June 12, 2011 7:23PM ; Updated: Sunday June 12, 2011 11:46PM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>INSIDE BASEBALL

Five Cuts: The weekend that was

Story Highlights

The red-hot Brewers swept the Cards and took over first place in the NL Central

During their nine-game win streak, the Red Sox are averaging 9.2 runs per game

All six division races are tight now that the Indians have come back to earth

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Brewers knock Cardinals out of first place
Source: SI
Prince Fielder's mammoth two-run homer highlighted a four-run sixth inning, and the Brewers edged the Cardinals 4-3 to complete a three-game sweep and claim sole possession of first place in the NL Central.

The rise of the Brewers, the fall of the Indians and more observations from a weekend in which veteran sluggers stole the spotlight from a pair of heralded call-ups:

1. Milwaukee's Best

The Brewers' three-game home sweep of the Cardinals vaulted them into first place by a half-game, ending St. Louis' nearly monthlong reign atop the NL Central.

Since snapping a seven-game losing streak on May 7, Milwaukee has the league's best record at 25-9, 3 games better than any other NL team and six games better than anyone else in the Central. So thoroughly have the Brewers' dominated the league over the past five weeks that their runs scored per game (4.7) leads the NL and their runs allowed per game (3.4) ranks third.

You could say Brewers GM Doug Melvin's offseason plan was on display this weekend. Melvin understood that he needed to improve his club's starting pitching, prompting separate trades of highly-regarded prospects for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.

Marcum allowed three runs on five hits and two walks while striking out eight in seven innings on Sunday. Greinke allowed three runs on seven hits but struck out nine with no walks in seven innings on Saturday. But the best outing of the weekend belonged to little known Chris Narveson, whom the Brewers designated for assignment as recently as 2009. (He cleared waivers and was outrighted to the minors.) Narveson threw eight shutout innings, allowing six hits and one walk while striking out six. Collectively, the three pitchers walked just two batters in 22 innings.

On the season Brewers starters have a 3.81 ERA and have allowed 2.8 walks per nine innings, both of which rank 10th in the majors. That's a big improvement over 2010's line of a 4.65 ERA, which ranked No. 27, and a BB/9 rate of 3.6, which ranked 30th.

2. Red Sox onslaught

Now this is the offense everyone imagined in the offseason. In sweeping three games from Toronto by a combined score of 35-6, Boston appeared to take out its frustrations on the nation of Canada in the wake of the Vancouver Canucks' 3-2 lead over the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final.

The Sox have now won nine in a row with sweeps of the A's, Yankees and now Blue Jays and most impressively have failed to score at least six runs only once -- when they scored "only" five. In fact Boston is averaging 9.2 runs per game while batting .329 with a .401 on-base percentage and .565 slugging percentage in those nine wins. The Sox now have the best record in the AL and only trail the Phillies by a half-game for the majors' best record. The two teams most pundits said in the preseason would be baseball's best are, in fact, on top of the majors for now.

3. Settling down

Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano, Royals right-hander Vin Mazarro and Reds righty Edinson Volquez -- three pitchers who have struggled mightily this season -- all rebounded on Sunday and reinforced why their teams have stuck with them.

Liriano has thrown a no-hitter this season but entered the day with a 6.25 ERA in his nine other starts before carrying a perfect game into the seventh inning and a no-no into the eighth against the Rangers. He eventually allowed two hits and one run without walking anyone and striking out nine in eight innings. The Twins remain nine games out of first place but have won eight of 10 and will need Liriano to pitch like an ace if they're going to entertain any dream of making a miracle run.

Volquez, who returned to Triple-A earlier this season because of poor performance (and possibly for his criticism of the team's offense), was the Reds' NLDS Game 1 starter last October and opening-day starter this season but hasn't pitched like he deserved those honors. He had a 5.74 ERA and 1.62 WHIP before logging a quality start against the Giants, allowing two runs on five hits and three walks in six innings while striking out five. The Reds, however, lost after the bullpen gave up two runs in the seventh. Volquez has completed seven innings only once this year -- in his first start back in the majors on Tuesday -- and left Sunday night's game after six having thrown 103 pitches. So while he was effective against San Francisco, there's still room for improvement for Volquez, who will need to start extending himself deeper in games to help Cincinnati break through the middle-ranks quagmire in the NL Central.

Mazzaro made arguably the worst relief-pitching outing in baseball history when he gave up 14 runs in 2 1/3 innings in a mid-May game, leading to a Triple-A demotion. He yielded six runs in five innings in his major-league return last month, but against the Angels on Sunday he threw seven shutout innings, albeit did so with a very pitching unusual line: five hits, five walks and zero strikeouts. After a hot start, the Royals seem committed to building for the future by letting their young players gain experience, and the 24-year-old Mazzarro needs to continue proving why he belongs in Kansas City's long-term plans.

4. The tightening of divisional races

The Red Sox and Phillies lead the AL East and the NL East, respectively, by two games apiece -- and they can breathe the easiest of all division leaders. The Indians and Tigers are tied in the AL Central; the Rangers lead the Mariners by 1 games in the AL West; and the Brewers lead the Cardinals by a half-game and the Giants lead the Diamondbacks by one game apiece.

The biggest story is the rapid demise of the Indians, who have been in first place for 67 days, dating to April 7, but after losing three straight to the Yankees over the weekend, Cleveland is only tied for the Central lead (with Detroit) for the first time since April 16. The Indians and the Tigers are moving along opposite trajectories. Cleveland, which had a seven-game lead after play on May 23, is 4-14 since then. Since that same date Detroit has gone 11-7 to make up that deficit.

5. Still swinging it

Though a pair of highly touted prospects -- Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas and Padres first baseman Anthony Rizzo -- hit their first career home runs, the weekend belonged to their elders. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter punched an RBI single to right field in the fifth inning and a groundball single up the middle in the eighth on Sunday for hits Nos. 2,992 and 2,993 of his career, and other long-tenured veterans went on a power binge.

On Friday and Saturday David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Pat Burrell, Lance Berkman, Chipper Jones, Victor Martinez and Paul Konerko were among the 14 players aged 33 or older who homered, the second-largest two-day HR total this season by players of that age, trailing only the 18 hit on April 2 and 3. That doesn't include Sunday home runs by Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero, Rod Barajas or Johnny Damon or the comparatively youthful 32-year-olds, Miguel Olivo (who homered twice), Michael Cuddyer and Aramis Ramirez. The preponderance of homers from veterans is little more than a curiosity, though it did help account for a weekend in which the combined runs of the average game (9.3) was up a bit over the season average (8.4).

 
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