Matt Garza is back at Wrigley Field, this time with his boisterous personality confined to the tiny, cramped visiting clubhouse.
Garza's Brewers enter a three-game series with the Cubs owning the second-best record in baseball, sitting at 26-15 halfway through May. They have a five-game lead on St. Louis entering Friday and a 12-game lead on the last-place Cubs -- the biggest gap between two teams in baseball.
Milwaukee's sustained that success despite seeing Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez land on the disabled list. Jean Segura missed a few games when Braun accidentally hit him in the face with a bat in the dugout. Carlos Gomez's back has acted up recently and is missing three games after dropping his appeal on a suspension stemming from an April brawl in Pittsburgh.
Garza, despite an ERA scraping five, has been a big part of why the Brewers are atop the National League Central with so many key guys banged up. The reason, manager Ron Roenicke said, is the energy he brings to the clubhouse every day.
"I think any time you have injuries and stuff it tends to bring down a team," Roenicke said. "… The mood can get negative. But any time you have guys chirping and getting on the injured guys, then it kind makes it fun. I think it helps."
Garza's done just that, helping keep things loose in a clubhouse Roenicke described as being generally "quiet." He's an intense guy who's enjoyed pitching for a winning team after spending two and a half years with uncompetitive teams on Clark and Addison.
Garza said he "ran out of hope" with the Cubs, where his energy and pitching success didn't translate into many wins for the club. But the Brewers have found a boost in having an energetic guy like Garza around the clubhouse, even if it's coming from a guy who only plays once every five or so days.
"He's energetic, he's positive and he likes to have fun," catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "He injected some life into our clubhouse and he's a big part of what we're trying to do here."
Second baseman Rickie Weeks, who's in his 11th year with Milwaukee, added: "When you got a guy like that who's been around for a while and brings that energy, it's always good for your ballclub."
It's difficult to quantify the impact Garza's energy has had on the Brewers, though Lucroy said he's seen Garza's energy rub off on Milwaukee's other starting pitchers. And Wily Peralta -- who has a team-best 2.05 ERA in eight starts -- said Garza's presence has been "really important" to him and his fellow starters.
Garza, though, hasn't had the kind of success through eight starts that earned him a four-year, $50 million deal from the Brewers in January -- $2 million less than Edwin Jackson's four-year deal with the Cubs. He has a 4.98 ERA and has struggled with his control, walking 10 in his last three starts. He's averaging fewer than six innings per start and has allowed four or more runs in half of his games.
Lucroy, though, knows just how good Garza can be from facing him in the NL Central the last few years. He's confident Garza, who's never finished a full season with an ERA over four, is on track two get back to his old self (Garza's 3.76 FIP backs up that claim).
"He hasn't been as sharp as he can be, as he's been before when I faced him," Lucroy said. "But he's doing good, he's continuing to get better and I fully expect him to be locked in here soon."
Garza's pitched in pennant races before with Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Texas, and if things keep going the way they are he'll get another chance to pitch for the playoffs with Milwaukee. October baseball isn't an unknown concept to the Brewers, which feature plenty of veterans -- Braun, Ramirez, Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse -- who've played and pitched important, pressure-packed innings before.
Garza doesn't need to be a go-to guy who's around to give sage advice on what it's like to pitch in a playoff race. He's with Milwaukee to pitch and bring some much-needed energy for a team that's contending for the postseason, not rebuilding.
"We need guys that do have some personality -- not that the guys don't have personalities -- but character, a guy that just is vocal and off the wall," Roenicke said. "I like those guys around."