Thinking of better days (Yovani Gallardo edition)

By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)

yoYovani Gallardo is slated to toe the rubber today in St. Louis.  Gallardo has been nothing short of dazzling so far in 2014 and currently sports a 1.42 ERA over 31.2 innings.  He’s getting a groundball rate of over 50% and has done a spectacular job of keeping the ball in the park.  But the Cardinals, as any Brewers fan knows, present a different kind of challenge.

It’s not worth it to rehash how historically awful Gallardo has pitched against the Cardinals.  Don’t look, it’ll just depress you.  Especially the 2011 NLCS start where he gave up four runs in the first inning.  The Cardinals have pretty much destroyed him.  Let’s just leave it at that.

But we’re not going to dwell on those many, many, many terrible games.  Nope, today we’re thinking only positive thoughts, which brings me to Yovani’s start on May 25, 2009.

At Miller Park, before a crowd of 43,000, Gallardo spun eight shutout innings.  It took 126 pitches, the most Gallado threw in any single game that year, as he walked four batters.  Still, he allowed just two hits and fanned six, amazing considering Gallardo benefited from just nine swinging strikes the entire game.  It’s easy to look at the lineup and note the absence of Matt Holliday and Ryan Ludwick, but Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina were in there, so it wasn’t exactly a AAA squad.

Despite Yo’s brilliant start, the Brewers couldn’t muster even a single run in regulation.  They finally broke it open in the 10th on an RBI single from, of all people, Bill Hall.

It’s Brewers vs. Cardinals in St. Louis tonight at 7:15.  If you’re a Brewers fan, here’s hoping that made you slightly more optimistic.

Tempering Expectations

Milwaukee’s Season Hinges on the Rotation

 By: Ryan Smith (@ryanhenrysmith2)

After a rough 2013 season for the Milwaukee Brewers – one that saw the suspension of Ryan Braun, the continued decline of Rickie Weeks, a regression in Yovani Gallardo’s performance, and a litany of injuries – it would have been understandable for Brewer Nation to approach the 2014 campaign with apprehension.

A 10-2 start has Brewer fans excited for 2014.

A 10-2 start has Brewer fans excited for 2014.

Then the first 12 games happened.

A 10-2 record, best in Major League Baseball.

A nine-game winning streak, including sweeps over the reigning World Series champion Red Sox and 2013 playoff participant Pittsburgh Pirates.

Cue the grand speculation.  There was some warranted attention being focused on Milwaukee, reminding fans that this team is not far removed from one that seriously contended for the National League pennant.  Sports writers from national sources and local publications were very quick to point out that this roster was not simply a flash in the pan, but instead was built for sustained success throughout the season.

Needless to say, expectations were running high.  The pitching staff – both starters and the bullpen – was lights out on the mound.  The lineup was providing timely hitting.  10-2.

And then the Cardinals came to town.

Not only did St. Louis stop the winning streak that had the entire state abuzz, they did so in a very Cardinals-y way, shutting out the Brewers at Miller Park, 4-0.  That was followed up with a 6-1 loss to the hated Cardinals.

All the “happy” feelings that went along with the nine-game winning streak had been wiped out in a 28-hour span at the hands of the team that seems to have Milwaukee’s number more than anyone else.

So where does that leave this Milwaukee squad?  Are they the team that started 10-2 with a pitching staff that could hang with anyone?  Or are they the team that gets crushed by St. Louis every time they play?

The fact of that matter is that they are probably somewhere in between.

Lohse's leadership has been as important as his consistency.

Lohse’s leadership has been as important as his consistency.

As of right now, the Brewers stand at 11-5, a win percentage of .688 through 16 games.  The early season success that the Brewers have experienced begins and ends with the pitching staff.  The starting rotation of Gallardo, Lohse, Garza, Estrada, and Peralta has an ERA of 2.55 with a 3.66 FIP.  Over 102.1 innings, they have recorded 85 strikeouts and only 29 walks.  The bullpen has been just as good, posting a 3.16 ERA with an impressive 3.28 FIP over 42.2 innings.

I’m not delusional; I don’t expect the pitching staff to keep this up over the course of the season.  In Thursday night’s 11-2 loss to the Pirates, we saw the first real implosion by the bullpen, taking over a tie ballgame and giving up nine runs over two innings.  The numbers that Brewers pitchers were putting up are simply not sustainable over a full season.

That does not mean that they can’t continue to be a point of strength for this team for the remainder of the year.  Yovani Gallardo has shown flashes of being a staff ace before, so while his 1.46 ERA and 2.89 FIP won’t be as impressive in July, he could still very well be leading the way for a dominant staff.  Kyle Lohse has continued to be one of the most reliable starters in  Brewer uniform for the second-straight year.  Perhaps more than anything else, Lohse’s leadership has been key in helping turn this staff around.  If Garza can stay healthy and Estrada maintains the progression that he’s made over the last few seasons, Milwaukee will have a pretty formidable one-through-four in the rotation.

Wily Peralta could be the key to a successful 2014 campaign.

Wily Peralta could be the key to a successful 2014 campaign.

That brings me to Wily Peralta.  I’ve been a fan of Peralta for quite some time; I always saw the potential that he brought to the mound.  He just had the pitching ability that the Milwaukee farm system seemed to lack ever since Gallardo was promoted.  His early returns have been mixed; he showed admirable durability in starting 32 games last year, but his 4.37 ERA and 4.30 FIP left something to be desired.

Through three starts this season, Peralta has shown improvement in some important areas.  He has lowered his BB/9 by over a full walk while posting similar K/9 numbers, and his ERA is a spectacular 1.96.  However, his 4.58 FIP and .222 BABIP seem to indicate that his success thus far is a product of a good amount of luck.

As the number five starter in the rotation, Peralta doesn’t need to have a sub-2.00 ERA; he doesn’t need to pitch like the staff ace.  Frankly, if Peralta can bring his FIP down closer to 4.00 and keep his ERA in the 3.75-range, Brewers fans should be thrilled.  If our number five is pitching like a three, we’re going to be trouble for the rest of the National League.

I could go on and break down the bullpen arms a little more, or I could discuss the possibility that Aramis Ramirez loves batting with runners in scoring position.  But, in all honesty, I think the hopes of a playoff run for the ‘14 Milwaukee Brewers begins and ends with the rotation.

If they can find a way to continue to produce quality starts even after the supposed lucky numbers stop going their way, the Brewers are going to force themselves into the playoff conversation, along with other National League contenders.

But, if Garza gets hurt, or Gallardo has his past issues creep up, or Peralta steps back to his ‘13 version, Milwaukee will be in trouble.  If the rotation struggles for prolonged periods of time, the bullpen will get taxed and start to break down.  If the pitching staff begins to implode, the curious struggles of the lineup will be magnified.

For the record, I think this Brewers team will challenge for a playoff spot.  I think they are capable of winning 88-90 games in 2014.

But any sustained success begins and ends with the rotation.  If that domino falls, Miller Park will be in for a long summer.

Rattled: Peoria Brutalizes Wisconsin on Opening Day Despite Dazzling Effort by Williams

by Kevin Kimmes
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33 degrees. It’s not exactly what most folks would consider to be ideal baseball weather, but when you are playing spring ball in the Midwest League these things can pretty much be expected.

Today is Opening Day for the MiLB (Minor League Baseball for the uninitiated) and in Appleton, WI the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers are facing the Peoria Chiefs to start the season for the 6th time since 1995. While the brave souls in the seats are sparse, I’m told that the club level overhead is packed to near capacity. As I said before, it is 33 degrees at game time.

Most of the players on the Opening Day roster have never faced these kinds of conditions before, a fact that Clint Coulter expounded upon:

“…we have a lot of guys who hadn’t played in anything like this and then also this is their first full season, first time they’ve really played in front of a crowd like we’ve got here.”

The Rattlers manage to strike first blood in the 3rd inning after Rafael Neda singles and is driven home on a triple by Omar Garcia. Garcia, who made a spectacular diving grab in the top half of the inning, brought his A-game with him showing skills on both offense and defense.

Wisconsin starter Taylor Williams was dazzling on the mound for the Rattlers striking out 7 in 5 innings of work. “I just tried to go out there and command my fastball, command my zone, and give the defense behind me a chance to make plays,” Taylor said post game.

“Dominant,” was how Rattlers skipper Matt Erickson described Williams performance. “He was pounding the zone early and obviously he was putting away people too. He gave us a great chance early in that ballgame to win that game.”

However, the tides began to turn when the ball was turned over to Williams’ tandem partner, Tyler Alexander.

In the 6th Alexander would yield a run, tying the game at 1. The Rattlers would take the lead back in the bottom of the inning (2-1), but that lead would be short lived.

The top of the 7th would become what can only be described as a massacre. Alexander would load the bases with only 1 out leading to his removal. His replacement, Chris Razo, would fair no better. By the time the dust cleared the Chiefs had batted around and the Rattlers found themselves on the losing end of a 7-2 score.

Wisconsin would battle back in the bottom of the 7th when a Michael Ratterree triple would be driven home on a sacrifice fly to deep center by Taylor Brennan. It would be the only run for the Rattlers in the inning, it’s relevance erased when the Chiefs would tally yet another run in the top of the 8th bringing the score to 8-3.

A Clint Coulter homerun in the bottom of the 9th would bring the score to 8-4, however it would be all the offense the Rattlers could muster.

The Rattlers return to action Friday night at 6:35 PM for game 2 of this 4 game Opening Week matchup.

Kevin Kimmes is a regular contributor to creamcitycables.com and a former MLB Fan Cave Top 52 Finalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevinkimmes.

Timber Rattlers 2014 Opening Day Pre-Game Notes

by Kevin Kimmes
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Tonight, the Timber Rattlers kick off the 2014 season at home against the Peoria Chiefs. Here’s what you need to know if you are heading out to the ballpark tonight (game time is set for 6:35 PM).

- Back for his 4th season as the skipper of the Timber Rattlers, Matt Erickson (204-209) is just 12 wins shy of passing Gary Thurman (215-198) for the most wins by a Wisconsin manager in franchise history.

- 6 former Rattlers have made the 2014 Opening Day roster. They are: pitchers Preston Gainey, Harvey Martin and Chris Razo; catchers Clint Coulter and Rafael Neda; and infielder Chris McFarland.

- The Brewers made 2 roster moves in order to reach tonight’s 25-player limit. Those moves find Rodolfo Fernandez (P) and Paul Eshleman (C) placed on the disabled list.

- If tonight’s matchup seems like ” It’s deja vu all over again”, that’s because it is. Tonight marks the 6th time these two teams have faced off to start a Midwest League season. Wisconsin holds a 3-2 advantage in the previous 5 matchups.

- The all time series between Wisconsin and Peoria (which dates back to 1995) finds the Rattlers in the drivers seat. The Rattlers are 148-142, with a 69-84 record here at Neuroscience Group Field.

- This year marks the Chiefs 2nd season as an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Chiefs had the Rattlers number in 2013 winning 11 of their 17 head to head contests.

Can’t make it out to the game tonight, you can still catch all the action on TWC Sports WI, 1280 WNAM, and on MiLB.TV.

Kevin Kimmes is a regular contributor to creamcitycables.com and a former MLB Fan Cave Top 52 Finalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevinkimmes.

The Number 34: Is There More To Axford’s Number Than Meets The Eye?

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by Kevin Kimmes

“The circle is now complete.” – Darth Vader

In December of 1980, a deal was made between the San Diego Padres and the St. Louis Cardinals, a deal that would see future Hall-of-Famer Rollie Fingers join the Cardinals’ organization. Wait you say, “Rollie never played for the Cards.” Well, right you are, so let me explain what happened.

On December 8th 1980, the San Diego Padres worked out an eleven player trade with the Cardinals. This deal would see Fingers, Bob Shirley, Gene Tenace and a player to be named later (Bob Geren) traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Terry Kennedy, John Littlefield, Al Olmsted, Mike Phillips, Kim Seaman, Steve Swisher and John Urrea. Fingers’ time in St. Louis would be brief, four days to be exact. You see, the very next day (December 9th) the Cards would acquire future Hall-of-Fame closer, Bruce Sutter from the Cubs.

On December 12th 1980, Fingers was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals with Ted Simmons and Pete Vuckovich to the Milwaukee Brewers for David Green, Dave LaPoint, Sixto Lezcano and Lary Sorensen. Milwaukee now held the contract for “Number 34″, a number that would be retired by Milwaukee in 1992, the same year he was inducted into the Professional Baseball Hall-of-Fame.

Flash forward to 2010 when a young reliever would join the Brewers ranks and immediately began drawing comparisons to Fingers. Some would say it was because of the way he pitched, others would say it was his domination in the closers role, but most would say it was his mustache. That man was John Axford.

“The Ax-Man” would set the Brewers bullpen on fire in 2010, setting a new franchise rookie saves mark of 24 saves which shattered the previous mark of 15 set by Doug Henry in 1991. 2011 would see more franchise records fall as he converted 46 of 48 possible save opportunities, including 43 in a row to end the season. His 2011 accomplishments included the following:

– Named Brewers Most Valuable Player by members of the Milwaukee Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America
– Named National League Rolaids Relief Man of the Year (an accolade Fingers won as a Brewer in 1981 while playing in the AL)
– Co-winner (with the Reds’ Joey Votto) of the Tip O’Neill Award presented by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame
– Tied for the National League saves lead with the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel
– Set a new single season franchise record with 46 saves (previous record was 44 set by Francisco Cordero in 2007)
– Set a new single season franchise record by converting 43 consecutive saves (previous record was 25 set by Doug Jones in 1997)

Despite these momentous accomplishments, struggles in 2012 (a season in which he led the MLB in blown saves with 9) and a 2013 campaign in which his closers role would be handed over to Jim Henderson would leave Axford exposed at the trade deadline. On August 30th 2013, the Brewers would say goodbye to “Number 59″ as Axford would say goodbye to the number as well.

In a deal with the division rival Cardinals, Axford’s services would be acquired for a player to be named later (that player would be revealed as Michael Blazek on September 1st). With his number 59 already on the back of new teammate Fernando Salas, Axford was in line to make a change whose significance seems to have been overlooked by most.

His new number? 34, Rollie’s number at the time of the 1980 deals that saw him traded from the Padres to the Cards and then the Cards to the Brewers in the course of 4 days.

Was this intentional or just a convenient coincidence? That is yet to be clear. What is clear, however, is that the Cards now has a mustachioed “Number 34″ on the roster 33 years after they dealt Fingers and Axford has seen a renaissance in St. Louis.

Since joining the Cards, Axford has posted a 1.93 ERA over 9.1 innings across 12 games. While he has yet to record a save, he does have a 1-0 win/loss record since the move.

Cream City Cables reached out to John Axford who could not be reached for comment regarding the origin of his new number at the time of publication.

Kevin Kimmes is a regular contributor to creamcitycables.com and an MLB Fan Cave Top 52 Finalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevinkimmes.

Axford departs

By Nathan Petrashek

play_g_axford1_sy_576John Axford is the only Brewers player I’ve booed.  I don’t remember when exactly it was, but I suspect it was some time in June or July of 2012, when his every other outing seemed to end in a (BS).  I’ve felt kind of guilty about that for a while now, because I’m usually a guy that likes to back up good players during their struggles.  Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

Axford was traded to the Cardinals today, so his time as a Brewer appears about over.  The trade for a player to be named later was really more about finances than anything else.  Axford was pretty good trending to okay, but he was making $5M this year and has three years of arbitration eligibility left.

The money would have been easy to swallow if Axford was still pitching like it was 2011.  In the year that brought the Brewers to the brink of another World Series, Axford delivered a microscopic 1.95 ERA over 73 innings, all while striking out better than a batter per inning.  He placed 17th in the MVP vote, a showing that I didn’t (and still don’t) think truly represented just how absolutely crucial he was to winning the division that year.  It was one of the most memorable season-long pitching performances I’ve seen.  To say Axford was a lockdown closer that year doesn’t give him half the credit he deserves.

But Axford has his share of fleas too, and that’s why I’m fully on board with jettisoning him.  We kind of suspected it at the time, but 2011 looks increasingly like a well-timed aberration.  Where Axford once had three brilliant pitches, only his slider ranks as above average this year (and just barely).  And though he hasn’t really lost much velocity on his fastball, Axford’s biggest bugaboo is the same today as it was when he took over for Trevor Hoffman in 2010: command.  2011 aside, Axford has always allowed too many batters to reach via the walk, which is a real problem when you have a propensity for giving up the long ball.

And then there were the character issues.  Much of the time, Axford was fun, easygoing, and entertaining, and he usually owned it after he blew a save.  But man, when that guy took to Twitter, he could troll with the best of them, often responding in kind to neanderthal tweets.  To his credit, he’s scaled back on that a lot this year.

For me, John Axford does not leave a complicated legacy.  I’m going to carry those memories of 2011 fondly, one of the greatest relief seasons I’ve had the pleasure of watching in person.  But today, Axford is just a guy who makes too much money.   That (and the lack of a long-term contract) makes him expendable.  Though I wish Axford well with the evil empire, the Brewers made the right move.

The Cards That Made Milwaukee Famous: 1909 T-206 Shad Barry

by Kevin Kimmes

Welcome to the 2nd installment of The Cards That Made Milwaukee Famous in which we try and shine the light of discovery on the players who were once household names in the Cream City. This series is dedicated to looking at Milwaukee’s baseball history through it’s cardboard representations: baseball cards.

Today we will continue on with the second of four players who played for the American Association Milwaukee Brewers in 1909 and appear in the T-206 card set. For more information on the American Association Brewers or the T-206 card set, click here.

From the author's personal collection.

From the author’s personal collection.

Shad Barry:

John C. “Shad” Barry (October 27, 1878 – November 27, 1936) was a regular in Milwaukee’s lineups from 1909 through 1910. Barry, who began his 10 year major league career at the age of 20 with the Washington Senators in 1899 would find himself playing at many different positions with many different teams during his major league tenure. Major league clubs that Barry played on include The Boston Beaneaters (1900-1901), The Philadelphia Phillies (1901-1904), The Chicago Cubs (1904-1905), The Cincinnati Reds (1905-1906), The St. Louis Cardinals (1906-1908) and the New York Giants (1908). (1)

In 1909, Barry would join the American Association Brewers for his first of two seasons in Milwaukee, hitting .235 as an outfielder. Barry would improve his hitting in his final year with the Brewers, recording a .252 average (3rd best on the team). (2)

Barry would leave the American Association for the Pacific Coast League in 1910, where he would see his batting average dive to a career low .193 with the Portland Beavers. He would remain in the minors for 2 more seasons, in 1912 as a player/coach for the Northwestern League’s Seattle Giants and in 1913 as a member of the New York State League’s Troy Trojans. (3)

Barry passed away at the age of 58 on November 27, 1936 in Los Angeles, CA.

Kevin Kimmes is a regular contributor to creamcitycables.com and an MLB Fan Cave Top 52 Finalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevinkimmes.

References:

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shad_Barry

(2) Hamann, Rex & Koehler, Bob (2004) The American Association Milwaukee Brewers Charleston SC, Chicago IL, Portsmouth NH, San Francisco CA: Arcadia Publishing

(3) http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=barry-002joh