By NOAH TRISTER, AP Baseball Writer
The Milwaukee Brewers are the surprising leaders of the NL Central, and they’ve reached this point with minimal contributions from their star slugger.
Ryan Braun, who missed almost all of June with calf problems, is hitting .259 with only 23 RBIs. With the Cubs and Cardinals still looming 5½ games behind, Milwaukee’s postseason hopes could depend on whether the 33-year-old Braun can stay on the field and produce.
Braun’s power is still there. He has 10 home runs in only 40 games, and he ranks among the top hitters in baseball in exit velocity, according to MLB’s Statcast. The question is his health. Braun hasn’t played more than 140 games since 2012, and he was out Sunday with left calf tightness.
If Braun can come back refreshed and healthy after the All-Star break, he’s a good candidate to make a bigger impact in the second half. Here are a few other players who could enjoy significant turnarounds down the stretch:
— Manny Machado, Orioles. Machado has 18 home runs, but that doesn’t really stand out in this homer-happy season. Baltimore needs more than a .230 average and .296 on-base percentage from its star third baseman, and Machado will likely provide it going forward. His batting average on balls in play is just .239 — 63 points below his career number — so he’s been victimized by some bad luck.
— Jeff Samardzija, Giants. He’s 4-10 with a 4.58 ERA, but don’t be fooled. In 118 innings, the right-hander has 127 strikeouts and only 14 walks. He’d make an interesting trade target for a contender looking to improve its rotation.
— Aroldis Chapman, Yankees. Like Braun, Chapman’s main issue is probably his health. He missed more than a month because of shoulder problems — always a concern for someone who throws as hard as he does. His 3.48 ERA is ordinary, but his strikeout rate is actually up from last year, and that’s a good indicator that Chapman will eventually be his dominant self again as New York chases a postseason spot.
Here are a few other developments from around baseball:
A CUT ABOVE
The Dodgers (61-29) and Astros (60-29) are on pace to win well over 100 games this season, and both head into the All-Star break in style. Los Angeles is on a six-game winning streak, and Houston routed Toronto 19-1 on Sunday.
Only three times in the modern era have two teams won at least 104 games in the same year. The Yankees (114) and Braves (106) did it in 1998, the Cardinals (106) and Dodgers (104) in 1942 and the Pirates (110) and Cubs (104) in 1909.
Maybe more of a lowlight, from Baltimore’s perspective. The Orioles allowed Milwaukee’s Orlando Arcia to score from first on an infield single Monday. Brent Suter beat out a slow roller to the shortstop, and Arcia tried to go from first to third. He made it, but he overslid the base and had little choice but to keep going for home to avoid getting tagged. The Orioles had him in a rundown, but he escaped to score the run when a couple Baltimore players got in each other’s way near the plate.
LINE OF THE WEEK
Kyle Freeland, Rockies, took a no-hitter into the ninth inning Sunday before allowing a one-out single to Melky Cabrera in Colorado’s 10-0 win over the Chicago White Sox. It would have been the first no-hitter by a Colorado pitcher at Coors Field.
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