Nearly June, Brewers lineup still trying to become contagious
It's a word associated with disease, from strep throat to the flu. No one wants to be deemed infectious, and no one certainly wants to catch whatever "it" is.
When talking about contagions in that regard, there is a definitive "it," something tangible, something that can be seen in test results or in a petri dish.
The word carries a different meaning in baseball, something positive yet difficult to describe and definitely ethereal.
"It is hard to explain," Milwaukee Brewers infielder Taylor Green said with a shake of his head.
Unfortunately for the Brewers lineup, they've been trying to catch it since Opening Day.
Since May 1 – and heading into Tuesday's late game in Los Angeles – the Brewers have scored four runs or less 16 times. They are 1-15 in those games, with their first win coming Monday night in a 3-2 victory over the Dodgers.
In games where they have scored six runs or more, they are 8-0. In the month of May, the team has scored six runs or more in back-to-back games just once, 8-7 and 8-2 wins over the Chicago Cubs on May 11-12.
"It's just frustrating that we can't put together a good streak," Ryan Braun said on the Brewers last home stand. "So we're just constantly trying to find a way to get going where we're playing good baseball for more than a game or two."
So what does contagious mean when it comes to a lineup?
One player hitting doesn't make another see the ball any better, but it's more than that.
Ron Roenicke defined contagious this way during the series against Cincinnati: "You need two, three guys to get hot. I think once that happens, I think other guys will loosen up and I think we'll all hit."
He knows of which he speaks, having spent parts of eight years in major league clubhouses in the 1980s. It's the theory that group confidence can build individual confidence.
Is it true, however?
"Absolutely," Green said. "You see your buddy getting a hit and you're like 'I'm going to hit him now.' And it just keeps snowballing like that."
How does the snowball actually get rolling though? How does being "contagious" really work, on a physical level?
Centerfielder Carlos Gomez said contagious hitting begets a communicable disease to the pitcher, which in turns spreads a positive bug throughout the lineup.
"When the first three are hitting, everybody will hit because it makes the pitcher think and make more mistakes," Gomez explained. "He knows if they get a base hit, 'Oh, I don't have my stuff today, I might have to pitch them around or get in trouble.'"
The speedy outfielder said it can work the other way, too. If a lineup can't scratch out a few hits or push some runs across early, the opposing pitching staff gains strength as the lineup falls ill.
"The pitcher feels more comfortable," Gomez said. "Then the late hitters, six, seven, eight, don't get nothing to hit because the pitcher has more motivation to make his pitch. If the starting pitcher throws six, seven innings, the bullpen comes in red hot, you know? But when the starting pitching is struggling, gives up five, six runs, the bullpen has to sacrifice and they don't come with the same adrenaline."
The tough part however, is that contagious hitting doesn't always turn into victories.
Since the start of May, the Brewers are hitting more, at 8.56 hits per game – a number that would put them right in the middle of the National League – but are scoring at a slightly less frequent clip at 4.28 runs per game.
"That's the other part of it," Green conceded. "We're getting a hit or two an inning instead of stringing together four or five, and once you start doing that, that's when everything starts going well."
Contagious: A simple word, with a simple definition. Yet when applied to baseball, it can be just as difficult to define as an amoeba that spawns a virus. The Brewers can only hope that eventually, they'll catch it, full blown.
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