March 2012

Braun out until Friday at least

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke just told us that Ryan Braun has been playing through a stiff groin for several weeks, but it flared up yesterday after Braun started against the Rangers in Surprise. He will be out through Thursday’s team off-day, Roenicke said.

“He’s had it, but he’s been able to play with it,” Roenicke said. “He hasn’t been running, and that’s why. It’s something that’s aggravated him. … Hopefully, we can get rid of it.”

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Braun scratched from Brewers lineup

Left fielder Ryan Braun was supposed to play back-to-back days for the first time this spring, but instead was scratched from Tuesday’s starting lineup with a tight groin. Logan Schafer took Braun’s place in left field against the Dodgers.

Here’s the new Brewers lineup:

Logan Schafer LF
Nyjer Morgan RF
Carlos Gomez CF
Aramis Ramirez 3B
Mat Gamel 1B
George Kottaras C
Brooks Conrad 2B
Cesar Izturis SS
Chris Narveson LHP

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Clubbies mourn loss of friend

Brewers starter Ben Sheets tried to match Mike Moulder's beard in 2003.

Longtime Brewers staffers have been working with a heavy heart after Mike Moulder, a fixture in the clubhouse during the team’s first six seasons at Miller Park, passed away suddenly last week of a heart attack.

Moulder was Tony Migliaccio’s assistant in the Brewers clubhouse from 2001-06 before going home to Cleveland to work for the Indians. Most recently, he was also the umpires’ room assistant at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, and in some instances Moulder would work a day game in Cleveland, hustle to Pittsburgh for a night game, then be back in Cleveland the next day.

Brewers clubhouse veterans Phil Rozewicz and Jason Shawger attended a memorial service for Moulder in Cleveland on Friday, logging about 7,000 air miles during a frantic two days. They felt it was important to attend, even though they had to be back at work before 5 a.m. MT on Saturday.

“He was a great friend to us,” said Rozewicz, who is going into his 14th season managing the visiting clubhouse in Milwaukee.

“Think about it,” said Shawger, who works on the home side. “I spend more time with Phil over the next six months than I do with my own family.”

Moulder was family to Rozewicz and Shawger, part of the fraternity of clubhouse workers who log truly insane hours to keep things running smoothly for players and coaches.

He was a kind, hard-working, baseball-loving guy who helped me navigate the clubhouse when I was a rookie with MLB.com in 2001. Those of us who remember Moulder in Milwaukee offer our condolences to his family.

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Breakout day for Aoki

Brewers PR man Mike Vassallo had one of the best seats in the house for Norichika Aoki vs. Yu Darvish.

It was a breakout day for Brewers outfielder Norichika Aoki, who entered a matchup against Yu Darvish and the Rangers with a .194 batting average and went 3-for-3 with three RBIs, a run scored and a stolen base. He also scored on a suicide squeeze bunt.

Aoki, a three-time Japanese batting champion, was probably due. A chat late last week with manager Ron Roenicke might have helped, too.

“It’s since then that I started doing better,” Aoki said. “It’s just an honor to have a conversation with him. … Playing in a different environment, it helped me relax and calm down. It reaffirmed that he’s a good person, and it made me want to play better for him and for the team.”

Roenicke said he checked in with Aoki to make sure he was getting enough at-bats in games, enough work in the outfield. He also told Aoki to relax.

“I understand he’s trying to impress us, but to do that, he needs to have a relaxed mind and a confident mind, like when he was playing in Japan,” Roenicke said Monday morning.

After Monday’s breakthrough game, Roenicke said, “I thought it was great. He needed to have that game, just so he could get back on the right track. Mentally, that does a lot for a guy. It sure should [help Aoki exhale]. I know he’s been pressing, I know he’s been trying to do well for us.”

Aoki accounted for the Brewers’ only hit in four innings against Darvish, an RBI single that bounced up the middle in the second inning. Aoki said he felt no extra adrenaline facing his countryman, but, “It brought be back to my days playing in Japan.”

“I’ve always hated facing him,” Darvish said. “The Brewers have a lot of good hitters in their lineup, and he seems just like one of them. He’s a very tough hitter to face.”

Aoki chalked up Monday as a positive day.

“I feel like I’m getting better and better every day,” Aoki said. “Today, I felt really good.”

Darvish was also very good, though he had to work around three walks in four innings. He allowed only Aoki’s hit, struck out four batters and pitched consistently in the 94 mph range.

He looks like the real deal.

“He definitely has good, pure stuff,” said Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, who went hitless in two at-bats against Darvish. “You can tell he’s confident out there, so I’m sure he’ll be successful. … And he looks like a pitcher. He’s big, he’s tall and he throws downhill. He definitely is a presence on the mound.”

Randy Wolf started for Milwaukee and saw something else in Darvish.

“The one thing I did notice,” Wolf said, smiling, “is that he may have been the quickest radar-checker I have ever seen in my life. I thought a couple of times he was going to drop the ball [from the catcher] because he was looking back to see how hard he threw. That’s something I’ve never had to worry about.”

It’s something most pitchers don’t worry about in the Cactus League. Wolf couldn’t think of another Arizona stadium with a radar reading on the scoreboard.

“I just wonder if he was doing the kilometers per hour in his head,” Wolf said.

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Axford: No rush in contract talks

Brewers closer John Axford agreed with the characterization of a Sunday meeting between his agent and the team as “a conversation,” and said there’s no need for either side to rush toward a contract extension.

“If conversations keep going [into the regular season], then they keep going,” Axford said. “I’m not going to be bothered by it.”

Axford, 29 on April 1 and coming off a club-record 46 saves, is already signed for 2012. He will be arbitration-eligible after the season as a Super 2 player, and thus is Brewers property through the end of 2016. But the Brewers and Axford’s agent, Dan Horwits of the Beverly Hills Sports Council, are engaged in conversations about a long-term deal that would give the club cost-certainty and Axford a lifetime of financial security.

The Brewers have struck similar deals in the past, sometimes buying out at least one year of free agency. In Axford’s case, that would require at least a five-year commitment.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sunday that Horwits had met in person with Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash. Axford said Horwits would probably remain in Phoenix for most of the remainder of Spring Training, further reason, Axford said, not to rush talks.

Axford has other things on his mind. His wife, Nicole, is to have the couple’s second child in June. They have decided to name him Jameson, Axford said, a nod to Nicole’s grandfather, James.

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Hart moving quickly toward game action

Corey Hart will take batting practice on the field for the first time Monday and still hopes to be the Brewers’ Opening Day right fielder.

Hart, who had cartilage repaired in his right knee on March 6, hopes to begin playing Minor League games on Friday. Those games are flexible, so Hart could lead off every inning and begin compiling the plate appearances he needs to be ready for the season opener.

“If I can get in a game by Friday, I think I would have plenty of at-bats for Opening Day,” Hart said. “Everything is accelerating. I think we have to push it and see if I can actually get in a game.”

The true test will be defense and baserunning, Hart said. He was not sure whether he would play a few innings in the outfield from the start of his Minor League assignment, or whether he would just hit.

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Greinke pleased with mechanical change

Zack Greinke worried that a mechanical adjustment he’s making this spring would improve his control but cost him some velocity, and instead has seen improvements in both areas. Add it to the list of reasons he’s excited for the Brewers’ 2012 season to begin.

“I haven’t got the exact velocity reports, but it’s been the same to maybe a little bit better,” he said. “That’s really good news.”

Greinke has simplified his delivery, eliminating the shoulder “turn” he added in 2007, when he was working out of the Royals’ bullpen and was seeking more velocity. That move eventually “got a little bit out of control” and hurt his command. Greinke figures that’s the reason he had a 5.03 ERA from the 2010 All-Star break through the 2011 All-Star break — “not acceptable,” Greinke said.

When he started tinkering with a change, his numbers improved dramatically during the second half 2011 with the Brewers. When the simplified delivery felt good in early-camp bullpen sessions, Greinke committed.

His control, especially of off-speed pitches, is “without a doubt better,” Greinke said, and pitching feels easier on his arm.

He was supposed to continue the project on Sunday against the Rangers, but a dicey weather forecast prompted a change. Greinke threw 62 pitches over four innings of a morning simulated game instead, facing Brewers prospects Logan Schafer, Caleb Gindl, Eric Farris and Zelous Wheeler on an empty back field at Maryvale Baseball Park.

It was the best of the imperfect options, and at least it kept Greinke on schedule. He’s the only one of the Brewers’ projected starters without an off-day built in to his spring schedule, so he needed the work.

There was one topic Greinke declined to address Sunday: His contract, which is up after this season. The Brewers want to sign him to an extension, but Greinke said he was “done talking about anything with the contract.” He’d previously been been clear he’s open to a Brewers pitch.

“I feel refreshed,” Greinke said. “Just in a good place, mentally and physically.”

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Braun hits the road, shrugs off slow start

Ryan Braun isn’t about to start counting outs, or hecklers. He stuck to the script Saturday, saying this is just another Spring Training and just another baseball season.

Braun played his first spring road game against the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium, going 0-for-2 with a walk and a slick sliding catch in foul ground. He’s 1-for-15 so far this spring with a home run and three walks.

“There’s never a quantity of at-bats in Spring Training that would concern me, ever,” Braun said. “Spring Training has never been result-oriented. It’s always process-oriented. The process is certainly a little different this year. It’s an adjustment I’ll have to make.”

Braun will gradually begin to play more regularly next week. He said he plans to start back-to-back games for the first time on Monday and Tuesday — both road games, including a Monday match-up with Yu Darvish and the Rangers in Surprise, Ariz.

It’s part of his process.

“If I go 0-for-50 in Spring Training, I’m 100 percent confident I’ll have success in the season. I’m serious,” Braun said. “It’s just a different intensity, different focus, energy, enthusiasm when you play regular season games. It just is.

“Of course, I want to have success. You always want to have success. But it’s different.”

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Brewers want Hart baseball-ready

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said this morning that all indications point to Corey Hart being physically ready for Opening Day.

Will Hart be in Milwaukee’s Opening Day lineup? That’s a separate issue.

“What it comes down to is, if he stays on this pace, physically, he will be ready to go Opening Day,” Roenicke said. “But, baseball-wise, I don’t know if he will be [ready]. We’re trying to figure about how many games that we think he’s going to need.”

The Brewers may err on the side of caution considering Hart’s experience last year, when he missed all of Spring Training with a rib-cage issue and returned after limited preparatory at-bats when another outfielder, Nyjer Morgan, was sidelined. Still finding his stroke, Hart batted .235 with one RBI in his first 15 games. He hit .290 with 26 home runs and 62 RBIs in the 115 games that followed.

If Hart misses Opening Day, the Brewers expect him to be ready shortly thereafter. Clubs can backdate a season-opening stint on the 15-day disabled list to March 26. In that scenario, Hart could be active as early as April 10, the Brewers’ fifth regular season game.

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Hart ‘way ahead of schedule’

Brewers right fielder Corey Hart had such a hop in his step Saturday morning, you’d hardly know he was less than two weeks removed from knee surgery.

“I’m way ahead of schedule,” he said.

Hart underwent arthroscopic surgery on March 6 to repair three tears to cartilage in his right knee. That was a Tuesday; he was back at Maryvale Baseball Park on Wednesday on crutches. By that Friday, he was down to one crutch. By Sunday, he was walking without crutches.

One week post-surgery, on Tuesday, March 13, Hart told athletic trainers he felt ready to begin running, and they held him off until Thursday, when he ran on a treadmill for the first time. On Friday, he had the stitches removed from three small entry points around his kneecap. He also hit off a tee for the first time and threw on the field.

On Saturday morning, he was feeling “great.” Hart said it’s too early to set a more firm timetable — he still faces a very narrow window to be ready for the Brewers’ April 6 season opener.

“It really depends on how fast I can get comfortable with baseball stuff,” Hart said. “Running on the treadmill is a lot different than running on the field. But I just had my stitches out yesterday, and I’m already doing a lot more than I thought I would be.”

Hart’s speedy recovery doesn’t surprise second baseman Rickie Weeks, who had a similar procedure after the 2008 postseason and walked out of surgery.

“It’s really not a bad surgery,” Weeks said. “I’m not surprised at all to see him doing so good.”

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