Jonathan Lucroy was never supposed to be a star. He was a third-round draft pick; according to Baseball Reference, which keeps track of such things, he never made any of the major top 100 prospects lists; and entering his age-26 season, he had a career .260/.307/.366 batting line.
There he was last night, though, winning yet another game for his team, this time a crucial one against the division rival Cincinnati Reds. It was a win the Brewers—who began the season looking like they might run away with the division, and have since come crashing back to Earth—badly needed.
In the sixth inning, he reached out and pulled a breaking ball on the outer half of the plate over the wall in left-center to put his team up 3-1. He came up again in the bottom of the ninth inning, this time with the score tied at three, and ripped a walk-off home run down the left-field line.
This is just the kind of year Lucroy is having. He's been the best hitter the Brewers have, leading the team in batting average (.310) and OBA (.381) and throwing 33 doubles and 11 home runs into the mix. Pitch framing metrics, meanwhile, have him as one of the best receivers in the game, having already picked up 16 runs' worth of strikes more than the average catcher. He's not just by far the most productive catcher in baseball, he's basically having a season out of Johnny Bench's prime, with his rWAR of 4.5 putting him on pace (we know, we know) to have one of the dozen or so best seasons a catcher has ever had.
All this is to say that Lucroy, an elite hitter playing a position where reliable production is as scarce as it gets, is more important to the Brewers' playoff chances than any other player on the roster. It's no coincidence that the Brewers' recent floundering, a 3-10 stretch that started on July 1 and led them into the all-star break, coincided with Lucroy's worst stretch of the season. (Even after last night's big game, he's still hitting just .186/.269/.424 in July.)
The Brewers are 3-2 to start the second half, and their two straight wins over the Reds have put a little more distance between themselves and one of the teams that's nipping at their heels. The Reds aren't going anywhere, though, and neither are the Pirates or Cardinals. The Brewers have a hard fight in front of them, and despite having the best record in the division, Baseball Prospectus puts the Brewers' current odds of winning the NL Central at just 31.2 percent. Whether or not the Brewers can beat those odds will have a hell of a lot do with however much Lucroy has left to give them, and whether he can keep doing what he was never supposed to do.