There were plenty of reasons to be encouraged by the Milwaukee Brewers' three-game sweep of the San Diego Padres this week.
First and foremost was the starting rotation, which continued its early-season dominance by allowing a total of three runs. Then there was the offense, which produced 13 runs despite missing three of its top players, including Christian Yelich.
But the unsung heroes of the Brewers' first sweep of the season were their relievers, who combined for 15 strikeouts over 10⅓ scoreless innings, including 11 over 4⅓ in Wednesday's 4-2 victory.
"The bullpen guys did a really nice job (against the Padres)," said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, whose team holds a two-game lead over the rest of the NL Central Division as it opens a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field. "They've picked each other up, which is a great thing."
Through the first few weeks of the season, the Brewers' traditional script has been somewhat flipped. In recent years, a lockdown bullpen helped make up for a starting rotation that at times was piecemeal at best.
This year, the starters have carried the load, putting up dominant and even historic numbers. The bullpen struggled out of the gate, ranking 13th out of 15 National League squads with a 4.56 ERA after dropping two of three games to the Pittsburgh Pirates last weekend.
"We've had some tough ones the last couple weeks where we thought the starters deserved better," left-hander Brent Suter said. "We've just made a concerted effort to be better at picking up our teammates."
The results weren't at all surprising to Counsell. Early in spring training, he noted this year's crop of relievers was significantly younger and less experienced compared to recent seasons. He was confident those players and the varying styles they offered would eventually lead to another formidable group, though he stressed the need for patience.
"Every year is a different story," Counsell said. "But in the end, bullpens are best when starting pitchers pitch a lot of innings and we create big leads."
Overall, Brewers pitchers are third in both the NL and all of baseball with a 2.71 ERA, with the starters' combined 1.99 ERA the best in baseball. Milwaukee's relievers have a 3.82 ERA, good for sixth in the NL, but have a 2.29 mark over the past seven days, which is second only to the Dodgers' bullpen (1.96) during that stretch.
"Watching the starters dominate fires everybody up and makes everybody want to be better," Suter said. "The way they've been setting the tone for games, for series, it trickles down to everybody in the bullpen, so we're definitely feeding off them and enjoying seeing them turn in outing after outing like that."
Suter earned his first victory of the season Wednesday, striking out four in 1⅓ scoreless innings, his second consecutive outing without allowing a run. He was followed by right-hander Devin Williams, who struck out two while also working a second consecutive scoreless outing as he continues to look more and more like the NL Rookie of the Year winner from 2020.
Because of a shoulder injury that kept Williams out of last year's NL wild card series, the Brewers took a cautious approach with him in spring training. He made only four Cactus League appearances and the light workload likely played into the 9.82 ERA he posted through his first four regular-season appearances.
Counsell was able to move Williams into lower-leverage situations thanks to the emergence of J.P. Feyereisen. The River Falls native has yet to allow an earned run in nine appearances, striking out nine over 9⅔ innings.
His performance has earned Counsell's trust in crucial situations such as Wednesday, when the manager called on Feyereisen to protect a two-run lead with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth.
Feyereisen struck out Wil Myers and Victor Caratini to snuff out the rally and Josh Hader, who gave up his first hit of the season, kept San Diego off the board in the ninth for his third save.
"It's early in the year and obviously guys are still getting their feet going a little bit underneath them," Feyereisen said. "I think that this series, especially after the last series with the questions we had about the pen, I think that our guys showed that we can be the big pen that we're supposed to be."
Watch now: 5 of the Brewers' most eye-popping defensive plays so far this season
April 1: Luis Urias' debut
The Brewers wanted to see what Luis Urias could do at shortstop this season and he didn't make them wait long to find out. Three pitches into the first inning of the season, Urias made a leaping grab to rob Twins leadoff hitter Luis Arraez of a base hit.
Urias, 23, was expected to share time at shortstop with Orlando Arcia, but now the job is his after the Brewers dealt Arcia to Atlanta for a pair of right-handed pitchers.
"He has earned this and it's an important time for him," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "He's going to get a great opportunity here."
April 6: Kolten Wong's double play
Kolten Wong's two Gold Glove Awards were a primary reason the Brewers signed him to a two-year, $18 million contract ahead of Spring Training and while he hasn't made much of an impact at the plate, his defense has already lived up to expectations.
Wong put his elite glove work on display late in the April 6 game against the Cubs. The Brewers led, 4-0, when Brad Boxberger drilled Cubs catcher Willson Contreras to lead off the ninth. With left-handed hitting Anthony Rizzo up, Milwaukee's infield went into a full shift with Wong lined a up a few steps over and behind first baseman Travis Shaw — perfectly positioned to scoop up Rizzo's grounder.
But instead of just tossing to Shaw for the easy out, Wong was able to turn around, get a throw off to third baseman Daniel Robertson who charged the bag for the force then got the relay to first in time to retire Rizzo.
At first glance, the play looked to be a routine double play, but Counsell said Wong's skill disguised its difficulty.
"It’s a hard play that he made look very easy, that’s the best way I can describe it," Counsell said. "The degree of difficulty was much more than Kolten made it seem. That’s what great defenders do: they make hard plays look fairly routine.
"Once he put it in his glove, the double play looked fairly routine."
April 7: Avisail Garcia saves the shutout
Brandon Woodruff's no-hit bid had just been spoiled by an Ian Happ single and the Cubs were threatening to break a scoreless tie when Kris Bryant sent a 3-2 fastball to shallow right field.
Avisail Garcia charged, slid and hauled it in to rob Bryant of a single, snuff out a potential rally and close out a sparkling effort for Woodruff.
"Honestly, when Bryant hit that I did not think that there was going to be a shot to catch it," Woodruff said. "Then the ball just kind of hung up there at the last second and he kind of closed in on it and made a heck of a catch. That was huge."
It turned out to be even bigger when Lorenzo Cain hit the first of his two go-ahead home runs in the eighth inning as the Brewers clinched the series with a 4-1, 10-inning victory.
April 10: Travis Shaw's diving stop
Most of the discussion when Shaw returned to the Brewers on a minor league deal this spring focused on his bat, and while he's been one of the team's best offensive performers so far, he's also provided steady defense at third base.
Shaw made a number of important plays April 10 against the Cardinals, including a diving stop to rob Austin Dean of a game-tying single with two out in the fourth inning and a nice backhanded grab to start a double play later in the game.
"Just play after play," Counsell said. "He had a big day and impacted the game in many ways."
April 10: Jackie Bradley Jr. robs Justin Williams
Moments after Dean cut the Brewers' lead to four with a three-run homer in the eighth off Josh Lindblom, Jackie Bradley Jr. charged to the wall in center to pull back what would have been a solo home run by Justin Williams for the first out of the inning.
"Jackie hasn’t gotten hot with the bat yet but I think he’s shown us defensively why he’s got such a great reputation," Counsell said.