MILWAUKEE -- Long reliant on an offense built around Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the Brewers may have found a new way to win. They scratch out an early lead, and get it to the bullpen.
That's how the Brewers were defeated in two of three games in San Francisco, and how they turned around to beat the Cubs in the first two games of their series at Miller Park. Fielder homered in a two-run second inning on Wednesday, before Zack Greinke and three relievers pitched the Brewers to a 2-0 win.
The win came with a big price, as All-Star second baseman Rickie Weeks was taken to the hospital for tests after suffering a left ankle injury in the second inning. The Brewers will place him on the disabled list before Thursday's series finale.
"Nobody's going to have that perfect season," manager Ron Roenicke said.
The Brewers will press on, and losing Weeks' 19 home runs and 71 runs scored could further transform the Brewers from a hitting-centric club to one that wins with pitching. It started on Wednesday with Greinke, who threw 123 pitches -- the second-highest total in his career -- but surrendered only three hits in 6 2/3 innings for his first scoreless outing this season.
Takashi Saito helped Greinke get out of the seventh inning, before Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford worked through the final two innings for the second straight night.
Rodriguez was nearly burned by a would-be Aramis Ramirez blast that died at the left-field wall, but escaped with his third straight scoreless hold. Axford converted his 26th consecutive save opportunity to set a Brewers record.
"Our bullpen is kind of shutting people down, now," Fielder said. "That's always fun to be the people doing that to other guys, instead of them doing it to us."
Fielder's second-inning homer to left field off Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano was his first since July 5, and the slugger's 23rd home run this season. Craig Counsell, who had entered as a pinch-runner for Weeks, scored later in the inning on a Yuniesky Betancourt sacrifice fly.
That made it 2-0, and Greinke & Co. made the lead hold.
Greinke surrendered just three hits, struck out nine batters and walked three. The three hits he surrendered were his lowest total of the season, and he won for the first time since June 21.
Cue the parade of relievers. In Tuesday's series opener, Kameron Loe escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the sixth inning, before LaTroy Hawkins, Rodriguez and Axford retired nine of the 11 hitters they faced over the final three innings for a 3-2 win. On Wednesday, Saito stranded a runner at first base in the seventh inning, before Rodriguez and Axford combined to shut the door.
The Brewers entered Wednesday ranked 10th in the National League with a 3.99 relievers' ERA, but figure to climb that list with the return of Saito from the disabled list (he missed most of the first half with hamstring, rib-cage and shoulder issues) and the arrival of Rodriguez via trade from the Mets.
The K-Rod trade addressed what general manager Doug Melvin considered the Brewers' most pressing need -- one more late-inning relief arm. He came to Milwaukee with 291 career saves.
"It's just really deep," Greinke said of the Brewers' bullpen.
Roenicke went further.
"I think we've got the guys out there that can be the best bullpen in the league," he said. "If they're consistent in what they do, I don't see how you can say there's anybody better."
The starters are key to this new equation, and they have been excellent, too. Including Greinke's outing on Wednesday, Brewers starters have surrendered three runs or fewer in 12 straight games.
"All of a sudden, it turns into a seven-inning, six-inning game," third baseman Casey McGehee said. "If we can get them the lead, I like our chances with the guys we're running out there. Hopefully, those starters can keep going deep, so we can keep rolling them out there."
Before Wednesday, Zambrano had won seven consecutive decisions at Miller Park, including his no-hitter in a relocated game against the Astros in 2008. He pitched 6 2/3 innings and surrendered two runs on six hits.
"'Z' was excellent," Cubs manager Mike Quade said. "Unfortunately, Greinke was pretty good, too."
So were the relief arms who followed.
"It really has been amazing to see in the second half," Axford said. "I think that, as a group, we needed that extra piece, and K-Rod is that extra piece. Now, everybody is jelling out there."
This is not necessarily the way the Brewers drew it up in the offseason. They figured they would win with the same solid offense and a rebuilt starting rotation, and not necessarily a sputtering offense and a lights-out bullpen.
"Whatever it takes," Roenicke said. "You win in a lot of different ways. I would like to come out and bash the ball sometimes and win some games offensively, but we're getting some key hits and our pitching's been very good. I think all of baseball, it seems like offense has been down, so it's not just us."