September 2009

Five-game RBI drought Fielder's longest

Prince Fielder hasn’t driven in a run in his last five games, his longest drought of an otherwise incredibly consistent season. He’ll try again for RBI No. 127, which would set a new Brewers record, as the team continues its series against the Astros tonight at Miller Park.

No lineup surprises today for the Brewers, who are riding a three-game winning streak. The team will have an extra bullpen arm in Seth McClung, who was reinstated from the disabled list after missing 51 games with a sprained right elbow.

Felipe Lopez  2B
Corey Hart  RF
Ryan Braun  LF
Prince Fielder  1B
Casey McGehee  3B
Mike Cameron  CF
J.J. Hardy  SS
Jason Kendall  C
Jeff Suppan  RHP

McClung to return tonight?

Right-hander Seth McClung, fresh off a rehab appearance in Phoenix against Brewers instructional leaguers, met with team doctors Friday and was declared fit to pitch. He said he wasn’t sure when he would be formally activated, but he expected to be available Saturday. McClung has been sidelined since July 24 because of a sprained right elbow.

— JR Radcliffe

Sunday to be Gallardo's season finale

Thanks to contributor J.R. Radcliffe, who is covering the Brewers tonight in my wake, for passing along this note:

Yovani Gallardo will pitch for the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday in what will serve as his final outing of the 2009 season.

Manager Ken Macha had been toying with several methods of limiting the young right-hander’s workload with his team out of the pennant race, and his status for Sunday’s scheduled outing remained in doubt until Friday.

“We’ve got a pitch count in mind,” Macha said. “If there’s two outs in the fourth inning and we happen to have a lead, I won’t take him out. There’s a number we have in mind, but it can be adjusted.”

Macha said he weighed Gallardo’s input on the matter, making it a “group decision.”

The skipper also dismissed the notion that Gallardo’s proximity to the 200-strikeout plateau played a role. The 23-year-old needs just three punchouts Sunday to become just the fourth Brewers pitcher to reach that mark — a list that includes Gallardo’s fellow Mexican countryman Teddy Higuera, who accomplished the feat twice.

“I’m not an individual-stat guy,” Macha said. “He’s also leading the league in walks. … When you’re leading the league in walks, you have to get your command down and be consistent with your pitches. … He’s got the stuff, no question about it. Command of the ball is his biggest thing. It’s why we’re shutting him down. One-hundred pitches in five innings every time out there.”

Macha said Gallardo would throw light side sessions to finish out the year.

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— J.R. Radcliffe

Burns to be in uniform tonight

144241_astros_brewers_baseball.jpgAs assistant GM Gord Ash promised earlier this week, the Brewers recalled right-hander Mike Burns last night and will have him in the bullpen for tonight’s series opener against the Astros. Burns arrives as insurance for both Manny Parra, who remains indefinitely sidelined by a neck injury, and Yovani Gallardo, whose status should become more clear later today. Gallardo is completely healthy, as far as we know, but Brewers officials are once again exploring ways to limit his innings.

Burns was 3-5 with a 6.10 ERA in eight starts and five relief appearances during his earlier stints with the Brewers. In his 14 starts at Triple-A Nashville, he was 8-3 with a 2.62 ERA. He last pitched in Nashville’s season finale and went the distance, allowing 10 hits but only two runs with eight strikeouts in his second complete game of the year.

That game was on Sept. 7. Since then, Burns had packed up in Nashville and made the long drive home to Southern California for the winter. Turns out his season wasn’t quite over.

Coaches, Gallardo meet

Thumbnail image for 007688b4-911c-11de-96f9-001cc4c03286.image.jpgPrized right-hander Yovani Gallardo met with a trio of Brewers coaches on Thursday morning to discuss his schedule for the final two weeks of the season but the plan will remain a mystery until Friday. Gallardo would prefer to keep pitching, but said he’s open to the idea of calling it a season.

“I don’t think anybody is very excited when it comes down to being shut down,” he said. “But, the other thing you have to look at is that they might be doing things to protect you as a player.

“You have to see both sides, what’s best for the organization and what’s best for the player. That’s the way that I feel.”

If he stays on schedule, Gallardo would start Sunday against the Astros at Miller Park, and indeed he threw his usual between-starts bullpen session at Wrigley Field on Thursday morning. But recently-promoted prospect Josh Butler also threw in the bullpen, and was told to be ready to pitch in some capacity on Sunday.

“Hopefully, I’m able to go,” Gallardo said. “I say ‘hopefully’ because we only had a plan through Tuesday [when Gallardo returned after nine days off and lost to the Cubs] and then we were going to go day-by-day. But I just got done throwing a bullpen, and that’s a good thing. .. At this point, I’m starting Sunday.”

His meeting was with manager Ken Macha, pitching coach Chris Bosio and bullpen coach Stan Kyles. General manager Doug Melvin is also in Chicago and wanted to chat with Gallardo in person, but as of late Thursday morning, that sit-down had not happened.

Until it did, Macha wasn’t willing to reveal his intentions.

“Let’s let him talk to Doug,” Macha said. “We kind of has an extended conversation with Doug [on Wednesday] about ‘Yo’s’ status and we’ll let you know completely [on Friday] what’s happening. I think we’re on the same page, but before we stick it in print, let’s let everybody feel good about their conversations.”

Perhaps it’s not an either-or proposal between Gallardo and Butler. The Brewers could decide to start Gallardo on Sunday — Melvin’s bobblehead day — but hold him to a limited pitch count before turning to Butler.

In that scenario, Gallardo would have a chance to notch the three strikeouts he needs for 200. Only three other Brewers pitchers have reached that milestone including Gallardo’s Mexican countryman Teddy Higuera, who did it twice.

“That’s a good mark to get to,” Gallardo said. “But like I said, it comes down to the same thing. Staying healthy is the No. 1 thing, winning games is second and then everything else is after that. Hopefully I’m able to get there. If not, hopefully further on in my career I get that opportunity. Hopefully there will be a lot more opportunities. “

Butler, meanwhile, would be making his Major League debut. The Brewers acquired him last April from the Rays for outfielder Gabe Gross, and he put up a 2.97 ERA at four Milwaukee affiliates this season.

“I just want to get it over with. I want to get out there for the first time,” he said. “I talked to [fellow call-up John] Axford about it and he said he was more nervous during his nine days sitting there than when he actually got up and into a game. When he got into the game, it was all the same, and now he’s not as nervous anymore.

“Right now, it looks like ‘Yo’ is going to start, but that might change. I’m ready, whatever the plans are.”

Gamel gets a start

Mat Gamel is making his first start today since returning to the Brewers for September as the team aims to split its four-game series with the Cubs. He’ll team on the left side of the infield with Alcides Escobar, a potential preview of 2010 if the Brewers decide against using J.J. Hardy at shortstop and Casey McGehee at third.

(Remember J.J. Hardy? Used to wear No. 7 for the Brewers? Tough to find playing time for him if Escobar is going to have games like last night — 4-for-5, three RBIs, two defensive gems.)

Felipe Lopez  2B
Jody Gerut  RF
Ryan Braun  LF
Prince Fielder  1B
Mike Cameron  CF
Mat Gamel  3B
Mike Rivera  C
Alcides Escobar SS
Dave Bush  RHP

Speaking of Escobar’s big Wednesday night, here’s a note from Brewers PR boss Mike Vassallo: The last four rookies to have four-hit games at Wrigley Field are all Brewers. Escobar and Casey McGehee this season, Braun in 2007 and Alex Sanchez in 2002.

Looper: Does he stay or does he go?

Brewers starter Braden Looper figures to face a difficult decision this winter when it comes time to act on his mutual option for 2010. With run support like this, how could he think about going anyplace else? 

Rookie shortstop Alcides Escobar set career highs with four hits and three RBIs, and the Brewers scored early and often to help Looper set his career high for wins in a 9-5 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Wednesday. 

Looper (13-6) had won 12 games in each of his first two seasons as a starter after making the first 563 appearances of his career in relief. He didn’t exactly cruise to lucky No. 13, allowing five runs on nine Cubs hits including Aramis Ramirez’s two-run home run in a three-run fifth inning. Looper escaped with the lead, and four Brewers relievers preserved it. 

“It’s nice to go out there and have the guys put runs on the board,” Looper said. “It definitely makes it easier, that’s for sure.” 

It’s happened for him a lot. The Brewers have scored at least six runs in eight of Looper’s 13 wins including Wednesday, when they jumped to a 5-0 lead against Cubs starter Rich Harden (9-9) after three innings and extended the lead to 9-2 in the fifth. Six different Brewers drove in a run including Looper, who scored Escobar with a single in the second inning. 

All Looper had to do was get through the bottom of the fifth to qualify for his milestone win, and it was a struggle. But he offered an explanation for his mid-inning struggles.

He was playing catch in the outfield at Wrigley Field on Tuesday during batting practice when a line drive struck him in the middle of the back.

“I got crushed,” he said. “My back started tightening up on me in the third inning [of Wednesday’s game], really bad. It was a battle. I was able to pitch through it. I felt really good until the third or the fourth inning and then it started getting tighter and tighter and tighter. 

“It’s frustrating because I felt so good at the beginning. I’ve been working on things with [pitching coach Chris Bosio] and I feel like I’m making improvements, and when something like that happens, it stinks.” 

Looper said his availability for Wednesday was never in doubt. 

“I wasn’t going to let that happen,” he said. 

It won’t be as painful as a line drive in the back, but Looper could face a tough decision this winter. Given their need for pitching, the Brewers almost certainly will exercise their half of Looper’s $6.5 million option for 2010, leaving him to decide whether to accept or to seek a multiyear deal on the open market. 

Looper insisted he’s not thinking about that just yet. 

“We’ll see. It’s not my decision right now, and until they [decide], I don’t have to do anything,” Looper said. “I really like it here, and this would be my first choice, for sure. You get to a place and you start to know the guys, you feel like a part of what’s going on. But you never know. The option gives me a little bit of leverage.” 

What to do with Gallardo?

Dave Bush will take the mound for the Brewers on Thursday in the finale of a four-game series at Wrigley Field. After that, Milwaukee’s starting rotation appears set for some changes.

The Brewers are re-visiting the idea of shutting-down right-hander Yovani Gallardo for the season, and left-hander Manny Parra remains sidelined indefinitely with a stiff neck. Chris Narveson will make a second straight start in Parra’s place on Friday, and recently-promoted prospect Josh Butler appears a strong candidate to make at least one start if the Brewers make a move with Gallardo.

“There’s a possibility there will be some jumbling, yeah,” manager Ken Macha said.

The most notable jumble would involve Gallardo, who complained of rust Tuesday night after waiting nine days between starts. It was a move by Brewers officials to limit the workload of a pitcher who missed all but four regular-season starts in 2008 because of a knee injury and has piled up innings — 180 2/3, most on the team — and pitches — 3,125, fifth-most in the National League — in 2009.

If he stays on a regular schedule, Gallardo would make three more starts this year. Now there is a chance he is done.

“Yes, we are discussing it and working our way through it,” Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said. “[Pitching coach Chris] Bosio and Ken will get their heads together and see what they want to do.”

Macha wouldn’t reveal his thinking on Wednesday.

The Brewers are also soliciting input from Gallardo’s agent, former Major League right-hander Bobby Witt, to “demonstrate that you have the long-term health of the player in mind,” Ash said. The Brewers’ medical staff will submit information to Witt and so will the team’s statistical gurus, in an effort to demonstrate that taking away Gallardo’s final three 2009 starts would not have significant implications for his bottom line in future seasons. Gallardo projects to be arbitration-eligible following next season.

“It’s not about money,” general manager Doug Melvin said. “If we were worried about money we wouldn’t have nine extra guys here with the team out of the pennant race.” 

Melvin was not interested in saying much more about Gallardo’s immediate future.

“If you’re going to do anything, you talk to the player first. We haven’t talked to him yet,” Melvin said. “We’re not addressing it today. We’ll let you know if we do. But if we do it, we would talk to him first.”

The decision would probably not be popular with Gallardo. He met with Macha, Melvin and Ash earlier this month and went along with a plan to skip one start while making it clear he wanted to play out the season.

“I don’t want to be shut down. I want to finish out the year strong,” Gallardo said. “We’re trying to find ways to make that happen.”
Were he to remain on schedule, Gallardo’s next start would come Sunday against the Astros. For now, the Brewers aren’t naming a probable pitcher for that date but it could be 24-year-old Butler, one of the team’s most promising pitching prospects. 

Asked whether Butler could start a game, Macha said, “That may happen. He hasn’t pitched in eight days, so we’re going to give him a couple of ‘sides’ here. … We’ve had some discussion of what to do. It will all become clearer as the days go on. It’s not etched in stone yet what we’re going to do.”

Attanasio: Talk of Melvin's job security 'ridiculous'

The Brewers don’t need a major overhaul to return to contention next season, and speculation about general manager Doug Melvin’s job security is “ridiculous,” the team’s principal owner said Wednesday.

“It seems like a cop-out to me to blow everything up and start from scratch,” said Mark Attanasio, who arrived at Wrigley Field this week for his first in-person look at the team in weeks. “We’ve built this team around a good core of players now for five years and we took a step back [this year]. We’d like to take two steps forward next year.”

sabathia.jpgThe Brewers won the National League Wild Card last season to earn their first postseason ticket in 26 years. This season has been just as successful at the gate — the Brewers will draw three million fans for the second straight season — but less so on the field. Entering play on Wednesday night, any combination of three Brewers losses and Cardinals wins would formally eliminate Milwaukee.  

“I try to take what I’ve learned from portfolio management and apply it to baseball, because investing is what I know,” Attanasio said. “There is a temptation when things are bad to change everything, right? But if, at the bottom of the market, you sold all of your beat-up stocks, you sold your financial services and home builders, those are the ones that have recovered the best.

“So we need to take a hard look of what we’ve got and not just see the bad. We have a lot of good here. We thought we had a team this year that was going to compete for the playoffs — and by the way, a lot of teams this year are surprised that they haven’t, including [the Cubs] — but we obviously didn’t have as good a team as we thought we had. But, we probably don’t have as bad a team as it may feel like we have now because we’re having some tough losses. I think we have to take a measured approach. Doug always takes a measured approach to things.

“If Doug were to end up deciding that he wanted to make significant changes, I would support that, but he’s certainly not getting any pressure from me to make significant changes because I do think that we have a pretty good core group of players.”

He also believes he has a pretty good GM. Last winter, he extended Melvin’s contract an additional three years, through 2012. On Wednesday, Attanasio squashed any speculation that he might consider a change considering the team’s disappointing showing in 2009.

“Ridiculous,” Attanasio said. “Doug is a very strong baseball guy and I believe that this year was an aberration. I’m encouraging him to continue to follow his instincts and not do anything different.”

Manager Ken Macha doesn’t have the same contractual cushion as Melvin. He signed a two-year contract prior to last season that runs only through 2010.

“I’m really leaving that to Doug,” Attanasio said. “I believe he’s said that he’s going to assess everything after the season. … I think Ken is a very strong baseball guy and he’s certainly put enormous effort into the team this season and we did sign him to a two-year contract, so I guess those are all facts. I will say that Doug is not getting any pressure from me to make a manager change, but he will make the decision.”

The more important decisions will be in player personnel, beginning with a pitching staff that entered Wednesday’s game next-to-last in the National League with a 4.79 ERA, including a starting rotation that ranked dead last at 5.19.

The only starter whose contractual situation is unclear for 2010 is right-hander Braden Looper, whose deal includes a mutual option. The Brewers will almost certainly exercise their half (it calls for a $6.5 million base salary) but it remains to be seen whether Looper seeks a better deal on the open market.

The Brewers’ other key free agents are closer Trevor Hoffman, center fielder Mike Cameron and catcher Jason Kendall. The Brewers figure to hold payroll relatively steady next season — it was just over $80 million at the start of 2009 but has crept up to about $87 million with midseason additions — and adding depth to the pitching staff within that framework will probably dominate the offseason agenda.

“Doug and his team have had numerous conversations to figure out what went wrong and how do we fix it, and it’s very, very complex,” Attanasio said. “There are various things that did not work out this year relative to the pitching and we’re examining all of those. … With an offense like ours, you really just need your pitching to be average, and unfortunately it wasn’t this year.”

One way to improve the pitching, of course, would be to put one of the team’s young stars on the trading block. The name mentioned most is Prince Fielder, who is under contract through next season and then has one more year of arbitration-eligibility before reaching free agency in the winter of 2011-12.

Asked whether the team would consider trading Fielder this winter, Attanasio did not seem interested.

“I think that would be a very easy way to cop-out,” he said. “We’re not going to do that. Again, Doug is very methodical and needs to assess everything at the end of the season when the data is in and you certainly reserve the right to go look at that. If we study something and it’s the right thing to do, of course we would consider doing it.”

But Attanasio made it clear that he believes the team can return to prominence next season without so drastic a move.

“It’s very disappointing that these games in September don’t mean anything, but guess what?” he said. “They don’t mean anything for the Chicago Cubs, either. That’s kind of a shock. Or the Cincinnati Reds, who have a similar payroll to us. The only team in our division that seems to have got it right this season is the Cardinals.

“I do believe that this is a fixable situation, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to fix. We have to make a number of right moves.”

Parra's MRI yields no answers

An MRI scan of Manny Parra’s neck delivered “no significant findings,” Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said, but the Brewers were poised to bring in additional reinforcements in the event Parra remains sidelined.

Mike Burns, who finished the season at Triple-A Nashville and had gone home for the winter, will rejoin the team in Friday in Milwaukee but not to take Parra’s spot in the starting rotation, Ash said. That start, against the Astros, will go to left-hander Chris Narveson.

Parra traveled back to Milwaukee on Wednesday morning for the MRI and a visit with head team physician William Raasch. The doctors are convinced that the problem in Parra’s neck, which dates to Sept. 8, when he left a start against the Cardinals after one inning, is muscular and not structural.

“He will continue physical therapy,” Ash said. “Mr. Burns will join us on Friday to make sure we have sufficient back-up.”

Burns is already on Milwaukee’s full 40-man roster.