Randy Wolf’s Brand New Bag

wolf2.jpgJust a few weeks ago, we were speculating what could be wrong with Randy Wolf.  In his first start against Cincinnati on April 3, he allowed six runs and ten hits over four innings.  His next start against Chicago was shaky, too; Wolf went six innings, allowing nine hits and another six runs (two earned).  Wolf lost both games.  It wasn’t a pretty start.  As of April 9, Wolf’s ERA stood at a disappointing 7.20. 

Since then, though, Wolf has been stellar.  He rebounded against Pittsburgh on the 14th, striking out ten (ten!).  He didn’t give up a run in that start or his next against Philadelphia, a strong offensive club.  Against Philly, Wolf went another six innings with five strikeouts.  He followed that up with a gem against Houston on April 24, throwing eight innings and allowing only one run.  His ERA stands at 2.64, and he’s got a 3-2 record.

That sets the table for today, when Wolf faces off against the Astros again, this time in Houston.  Wolf usually does well against the Astros (career: 3.27 ERA, 70:29 K:BB). 

Whatever adjustment Wolf and Rick Kranitz hammered out is obviously working.  The stars are aligned for another big game for Wolf, which (if it happens) would be Wolf’s fourth quality start in six outings. 

It’s kind of interesting, though; Wolf has been pitching for the Brewers for over a year, and we still have no idea what to expect from him.  We know what kind of tosser he is: a fly-ball pitcher that looks for contact and doesn’t issue many walks.  But as far as what to expect on a daily basis, we’re still scratching our heads. 

It’s like that for some guys in baseball.  What makes some guys just so dominant against some teams and not others?  If you can figure that out, the Baltimore Orioles (0-14 against Boston’s Jon Lester) would love to know.

Randy Wolf has no doubt put together a great string of games in April of this year.  But it’s early, and Brewers fans are still waiting for the real Randy Wolf to stand up.  Is it the Randy Wolf from the first half of 2010 (5-7, 4.92 ERA) or the second (8-5, 3.56 ERA)?

Gabe Gross retires

This came across the wires a couple days ago, but I thought it worth taking a moment to reflect on the career of former Brewer Gabe Gross.

gabe gross.jpgGross spent all or part of three seasons with the Brewers, between 2006 and 2008.  He was acquired from the Blue Jays in the 2005 trade for Dave Bush and Zach Jackson.  Brewers sent Tortonto Lyle Overbay and Ty Taubenheim in exchange. 

Gross never really caught on with the Brewers, though he did appear in 210 games between the 2006 and 2007 seasons.  During those two years, Gross hit .256 with 16 HR and 62 RBI.  Gross appeared in only 16 games with the Crew in 2008, hitting only .209 with two RBI.

Gross was then traded to the Tampa Bay Rays for Josh Butler, who is currently pitching in Nashville.  Gross went on to reach the World Series with the Rays in 2008.  He appeared in 115 games for the Rays in 2009, hitting .227 with 6 HR, and became a free agent after the season.

Gross caught on with the A’s in 2010, and tried to make a go of it with the Mariners and Marlins this year, but it wasn’t in the cards. 

“I just felt like my heart wasn’t into it,” Gross said Monday. “This and quitting football are the two hardest decisions I’ve ever made.”

Brewers/Reds Postgame, 4.26.2011

Solo home runs from Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and Ryan Braun powered the Brewers past the Reds, 3-2, on Tuesday night.  It was the Brewers’ first win against the Reds in five games this season.  Brandon Phillips hit a two-run homer from one knee, which temporarily gave them the lead until Braun’s and Weeks’ bombs.

Marco Estrada was exceptional on the mound for the Brewers, tossing seven innings and allowing only two runs.  Estrada had exceptional stuff, often hitting the 92 with his fastball. Though his velocity dropped a bit as the game wore on, Estrada kept hitters off balance with an occasional changeup and a nasty curve.  Reds hitters were only able to muster two hits against Estrada, their only other base runners coming from three walks. 

Mike Leake pitched effectively for the Reds, but the Brewers managed to scatter seven hits over seven innings.  Still, they were not able to muster runs in any way other than the long ball, a sharp contrast with most games early this season.

One element remained consistent, though:  Carlos Gomez’ problems on the basepaths continued.  He took a huge lead off first base with no outs in the fifth and was promptly picked off by Leake. 

Craig Counsell’s Versatility

counsell slides.jpeg

Counsell gets the call today at third base after Casey McGehee sprained his left thumb in last night’s 9-5 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. 

Nice to have a guy like Counsell around who can play three infield positions (and left field to boot).  And he isn’t just a capable defender at third, short, and second; he plays those positions well.  As my cousin recently pointed out,* every team needs a veteran like Craig Counsell, and the Brewers thankfully have the original. 

In 2011, Counsell has appeared twice at second, three times at third, twice at shortstop, and once in left field.  He hasn’t wowed with the bat (.182 BA in 22 AB), but he’ll get up between .250 and .280 by the end of the season.  Plus, he always give you a good at-bat (.308 OBP).  No questioning his defense, either, given Counsell’s perfect fielding percentage this year. 

Over the course of a season, infielders are going to get banged up and need a few days of rest.  Brewers fans can take comfort that Counsell’s one of the best insurance policies around.

*He occasionally comes up with a good point** despite his misguided love affair with the Cubs.

**For example, his observation that “Ryan Braun [will] remain a thorn in the side of the Cubs for another nine years ….”

On Gallardo’s April Struggles

Before Chris Narveson’s blowup tonight (2.1 innings pitched, 7 earned runs), I was going to write about how effective the back-end starters have been and contrast their success to the comparative ineffectiveness of the front-line starters.  The point doesn’t have as much force now that Chris Narveson’s earned run average has bloated from 2.19 to 4.33, but a few words on Gallardo’s struggles in the early going are still warranted.

gallardo pitching.jpgThrough April 5 (two starts), Gallardo was dealing.  He worked a strong six innings in Cincinnati’s home opener, giving up only two runs and striking out four.  His start against the Braves on April 5 was nothing short of spectacular; a complete game, two-hit shutout.  He struck out only two, but induced so many ground balls (16) that no one really noticed.  Some even remarked that the lack of strikeouts indicated Gallardo was maturing as a pitcher, looking for weak contact instead of getting by solely on power.

Then the wheels started to fall off.  Gallardo got through only five innings in his next start on April 10, walking four and allowing four runs.  On the 17th against Washington (not exactly known as an offensive powerhouse), Gallardo allowed a staggering seven earned runs in 5.1 innings, although he struck out five without any walks.  He wasn’t quite as ineffective on April 22, but still allowed four runs over six innings.  For those of you keeping score at home, that means Gallardo hasn’t had a quality start in his last three outings. 

For a few reasons, I don’t think we have anything to worry about yet.

First, Gallardo is actually throwing slightly more strikes as a percentage through April (62%) than he did overall last season (61%).  That suggests that his command really isn’t escaping him, despite the walks.  Gallardo’s never been a guy to keep the bases clear (career WHIP: 1.326), and the number of walks he issues is problematic, but there’s no reason to suspect his control is becoming worse.

Second, Gallardo hasn’t lost any velocity.  He’s still regularly hitting in the 91-93 range with his fastballs, and mid-80s with the change and slider, which appear to have good movement.

Third, Gallardo’s starts last April were nothing special, and he went on to have the best season of his young career.  At the end of April 2010, Gallardo was 2-2 with a 3.41 ERA and 29:14 K:BB.  Gallardo has one more start left in April, but he’s currently sitting at 2-1 with a 4.88 ERA and 20:10 K:BB. 

Gallardo’s probably in line for a correction to his stats, and his next few outing should tell us where he’s at.  My money’s on some good games coming for him. 

Brewers/Astros Postgame, 4.24.2011

Brewers topped the Astros on Sunday, 4-1, and took the rubber game of the series behind another strong start from lefty Randy Wolf.

Wolf was outstanding, throwing 108 pitches over eight innings, 75 of them for strikes.  The Astros only mustered one run, a J.R. Towles shot to left field in the eighth.  It was Wolf’s fourth consecutive quality start after a disastrous outing on April 3 against Cincinnati. 

John Axford closed out the ninth on his bobblehead day, striking out Michael Bourn and Carlos Lee.  As is Axford’s trademark, he allowed a single with one out, but pitched out of it to end the game.

Offensively, the Brewers’ latest callup, OF Brandon Boggs, got the party started with a solo shot left in the second.  The Brewers’ other three runs came in the third on a Weeks home run (his fifth), a Prince Fielder RBI triple, and a Casey McGehee RBI single.  The offense finally seems to be clicking, with every starter chipping in a hit except Wolf, who is no slouch at the plate but padded opposing starter Wandy Rodriguez’s stats by striking out three times.

Brewers/Astros Postgame, 4.22.2011

The floodgates opened on Friday night as the Brewers dumped fourteen runs on the Houston Astros.  The Astros scored seven of their own, but could not keep their pitchers from throwing batting practice to the Brewers’ lineup.

Yovani Gallardo, recipient of the Silver Slugger award for the best-hitting National League pitcher, padded his resume for another award, smacking a solo home run in the fourth inning.  It’s his franchise-leading ninth career shot.

Gallardo was not sharp on the bump, though, allowing four earned runs in only six innings of work.  For the third straight start, Gallardo had control problems, throwing only 69 of his 113 pitches for strikes.  He walked one and struck out seven.  Gallardo could have easily walked more, as he was behind in the count often and worked two-ball counts to thirteen hitters.

Gallardo did get the win, though, thanks to the Brewers offensive outpouring.  Every starter but Fielder had a hit, and Fielder did his own damage with two walks and three runs.  Weeks went 1-2 with two walks, and Gomez, Braun, Kotsay and McGehee each had three hits, including three-run shots from both Gomez and Braun; Kotsay and McGehee knocked in two apiece.  Betancourt had a two-hit, two-RBI game.

The highlight of the night: a standing ovation for Ryan Braun, who signed a five-year, $105 million deal that will keep him a Brewer until 2020.  I was at the game, and it was spectacular to see over 31,000 fans cheering our homegrown star whose contracts have broken the mold.  Braun’s first at-bat was delayed a minute or so as everyone cheered.

MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy interviewed Braun after the game.  “I had no idea how to respond,” Braun said. “There’s no blueprint, I
really had no idea what to do. I was trying not to get too emotional. I
didn’t want to take away from my routine of the at-bat and I didn’t want
to disrespect the other team.”

In the next at-bat, Braun rewarded the applause with a no-doubt three-run home run to left center field. 

“I don’t think I could have scripted it much better,” he said. “It was
pretty cool. Definitely a special night for me individually and a great
night for us as a team.”

Gomez Staying Afloat

Charles Gardner at the Journal-Sentinel keys in on something I’ve noticed lately: Gomez seems to be improving at the plate.

Gomez went 3-5 with a walk in last night’s 14-run offensive onslaught.  One of the hits was a three-run shot that Gomez drilled into center field.  The day left Gomez with a batting average of .225, up from .194 as of April 13.

Since the start of the Washington road trip, Gomez is batting .258 with three walks and only seven strikeouts.  That kind of line won’t exactly inspire fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers, but is important because with Nyjer Morgan on the DL, the Brewers really have no other options in center. 

What’s most important, though, is that Gomez is finally exercising some plate patience.  He declined to swing at everything near the zone yesterday, and the results were spectacular.  My sense after watching him the past week or two is that he’s working the count and seeing more pitches.  Although I have not looked at the stats to verify that, the results kind of speak for themselves.

I have mentioned in the past that I think Gomez has something to offer this team even if he loses the starting job in center field.  If he continues swinging the bat well, he might hold on to the job longer than many Brewer fans would like.  I think if Gomez could find a way to reach safely 1-2 times per game, everyone would be happy.  Probably no one more than Ryan Braun.

Where We’re At

If you’d have told Ron Roenicke, whose squad was reeling with injuries at the end of spring training, that the Brewers would be playing .500 ball on the verge of getting Zack Greinke and Corey Hart back, I’m sure he’d have said, “I’ll take it.”

Hart and Greinke, two key cogs in the Brewers’ postseason aspirations, are slated to return at the end of April.  Hart began his rehab assignment Tuesday at AAA Nashville, going 0-2 with a strikeout.  The Brewers expect that he will need about 20 at-bats before he is ready to come off the DL.  Greinke has also been moved to Nashville after facing one over the minimum in three innings of scoreless ball at Class A Brevard County.

The Brewers have plenty of other injured players, though.  Sergio Mitre still has not pitched after being hit by a line drive on April 18, though he should be back soon.  Nyjer Morgan was placed on the DL today after a thigh bruise he sustained in an unnecessary collision with Pittsburgh catcher Ryan Doumit failed to heal; Brandon Boggs has been recalled from AAA to take his place.  Manny Parra (back) is improving and is expected back in late April, as is offseason acquisition Takashi Saito (hamstring). 

The pitching injuries have left the Brewers a bit short, but, by and large, the replacements have performed spectacularly.  Marco Estrada is 1-0 in two starts with a 3.46 ERA.  And aside from one mistake pitch to Shane Victorino that cost the Brewers a win against Philly, Brandon Kintzler has performed admirably (1-1, 3.86 era, 6:1 k:bb). 

The Brewers (9-9) are currently third in the Central behind St. Louis (10-9) and Cincinnati (10-9). 

The Crew starts a three-game home series tonight against the Astros (7-12) featuring ace Yovani Gallardo (1-1, 4.62 era, 13:9 k:bb) versus righty Nelson Figueroa (0-2, 7.31 era).  Gallardo has struggled mightily in his past two starts, but looks to get back on track tonight against a weak offensive lineup.  Gallardo has never lost to the Astros in Milwaukee, so lets hope the trend continues.

What the Braun Deal Means For Baseball

Ryan Braun is a different kind of guy.

He signed what many consider the most team-friendly deal in baseball in 2008, after winning Rookie of the Year and a spat of other awards for his first season of play.  Some predicted that, as one of the best players in baseball, Braun would soon become discontent with the seven-year, $45 million contract that would keep him in Brewers blue until 2015.

Braun put all that talk to rest today as he announced a five-year, $105 million extension of that contract.  “If I went back in time, I’d sign that contract every time. I’m so
thankful that they believed in me then. It meant a lot to me then for
them to come to me with an offer like that, with a belief in my ability
and in my work ethic to sign me to a contract like that at that time.
That means a lot to me today. It provided financial security, and
ultimately I was extremely happy with that contract, just like I am with
the one we agreed to today.”

Contrast that with Prince Fielder, who will enter free agency this year as one of the premier players on the market.  It’s no secret that Fielder is seeking the biggest payday possible, and that won’t be with the Brewers, who were apparently not even in the same ballpark as Fielder with their offer of five years and $100 million

Two elite players; two completely different approaches.  When asked about Fielder’s situation today, Braun said, “I know that this is a place he’d love to stay, but again, that depends
on what happens here in the future, and what he really feels like is in
the best interest of himself and his family.”

Of course, Braun is right.  It’s just that you have a hard time seeing how it could be against anyone’s interest to take a $100 million payday and play for a team that you love and fans that adore you.

Therein lies the impact of Braun’s contract on baseball.  His contract shows that it’s not always about the money, though there is plenty of that in his deal.  Instead, Braun’s contract exudes compromise, loyalty, and gratitude, traits that superstar athletes aren’t exactly known for.  The deferred portions of the contract allow the team to stay competitive while still giving Braun a competitive salary.

And, like any entrepreneur, Braun wants to make something his own.  Let’s face it, he, much like Fielder, could have latched on to the Yankees or the Red Sox and dramatically increased his chances of winning a championship while earning more than us mere mortals can imagine.  But that kind of conventional thinking has a price.  A star shines brightest when it has the sky to itself. 

Maybe, just maybe, Braun has decided to make his career in Milwaukee because he wants a championship of his own making, not the making of a general manager with a cash flow resembling that of GE.  And I’m sure he’s hoping his contract will have a domino effect, inspiring others to recognize that this city backs the team with all of its limited resources; that sacrificing a few million to get this city a championship might still be a good investment when the return is the gratitude of fans that, more than anything else, want to see the Brewers win.  It may not be the easiest path, but it’s probably the most satisfying.

Braun isn’t giving away anything in terms of expectations; either.  His goal:  “[T]o bring a World Series Championship to the Brewers
organization and the city of Milwaukee and I promise to do everything in
my power to make that dream a reality!” 

What a first step.  The rest of baseball could learn a thing or two from this guy.