April 2013

Roenicke back in the saddle after back scare

Ron Roenicke’s back was so locked up last night and early this morning that he seriously doubted he’d be able to manage Tuesday’s Brewers-Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

“That’s what I was worried about,” Roenicke said. “If I would have stayed at the hotel, I wouldn’t have been here.”

Instead, he left the team hotel at about 5:30 a.m. CT and went to a Chicago emergency room for medication and treatment. By 9:30 a.m., Roenicke was back at the hotel, and by Tuesday afternoon, he was back at frozen Wrigley Field.

He intended to manage the game, and if he continued feeling as well as he did when the Brewers took the field to stretch, about 90 minutes before the first pitch, he planned to make pitching changes as usual.

“It’s been bothering me for a few days, but not enough to — I could still throw, hit fungoes,” Roenicke said. “It was just a bad position in bed, watching a movie, and I couldn’t move.”

Roenicke has had back trouble before related to an injury from his playing days, but said this one was different. It was related to his sciatic nerve.

He joined a long list of Brewers on the injury report.

“I guess it’s contagious,” Roenicke joked.

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Narveson to miss 4-6 weeks

Brewers left-hander Chris Narveson expects to miss 4-6 weeks with the sprained middle finger that send him to the disabled list Monday.

He was injured throwing a curveball in the bullpen before a one-inning outing against the Rockies on Saturday. Narveson got through that inning, but his finger swelled up afterward.

“I felt a pop, just like a knuckle pop,” he said. “It started stiffening up and I couldn’t really grip anything that whole inning. The last inning I pitched I was sitting there like, ‘This isn’t right.’ So I got back, said something to the trainers and they thought maybe it was just inflammation.”

An MRI scan on Monday morning revealed the sprain — technically a slight tear to a ligament in Narveson’s finger.

“It’s one of those freak things,” Narveson said. “I guess they find it a lot in rock climbers.”

They also found it in Ben Sheets’ right middle finger back in 2007. He exited a July 14 game against the Rockies saying he was unable to grip the baseball, and did not return until Aug. 29.

The injury represents tough luck for Narveson, who made only two starts last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. He underwent a procedure last May 1 to repair a torn labrum and torn rotator cuff and was healthy this spring. The Brewers opted to put him in a long relief role to begin the season so he could ease the shoulder back into action.

“That was the thing, it was just getting to the point where you’re getting comfortable, getting ramped up,” Narveson said. “And the next thing you know, something like that happens. Who knows? Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. It kind of gives you a little bit of a rest.”

More from Wrigley Field on a frigid Tuesday afternoon:

– We just talked to John Axford, who has been removed from the closer’s role for the second straight season. Was he surprised to get the news on Monday morning?

“Not entirely, no,” Axford said. “The way things have gone, it’s a difficult position for Ron [Roenicke, Milwaukee's manager] and Rick [Kranitz, the pitching coach] to be in, especially with where our team is at and going 1-5 coming into yesterday. it’s difficult to have somebody at the back end of the game who hasn’t really had success in the three outings he’s had so far. He might as well try to get that person back to where they need to be, back in the right state of mind, back in the right state out there on the mound, and get someone in who’s had some success in the last three games … and get things back on track.

“I’m not mad about the situation. It’s my situation that I put myself into. Obviously, it would be better if the results were better and I didn’t have to be in this position, but it was three games in a row. It wasn’t like it was like 2011 — at the beginning of that year it was about a month that I struggled, but there would be a few good games followed by a bad game, and then things started clicking and everything was good. This was two bad games, then kind of a good inning [on Sunday against the Rockies] followed by a bad inning. Three outings in a row. It’s a difficult spot to put myself in and the coaches in.

“Obviously, I’m mad at myself. I expect a lot out of myself. I expect more out of myself. I also expect myself to overcome this and pitch better than what I have.”

More on Axford to come in the Brewers.com notebook.

– A lot of you asked, so I clarified once again on Tuesday and, yes, Corey Hart’s assignment to the 60-day disabled list is, by rule, effective March 31, and he is not eligible to return until May 30.

Here’s new information from assistant GM Gord Ash: Hart probably won’t be ready before that, anyway.

“Given what he is saying now about his recovery, [the 60-day DL] seems to be more appropriate,” Ash said. “I talked to him [on Monday] and he concurs that’s a reasonable timeframe, which is what the doctors said all along. The doctor indicated he felt the end of May, and now Corey is saying the same thing. We didn’t want to make that move initially, just in case, but obviously now we have to [because the team needed the 40-man roster spot].

“He had the surgery the end of January, and it was to be four months. And then when I was reading the injury report last week, he was talking about it being late May/early June himself. So when it became obvious we needed a roster spot, my suggestion to Doug [Melvin, the team's general manager] was to talk to [Hart], make sure he’s on board with it, which he was.”

Hart is still strengthening his surgically-repaired right knee. He has yet to get on a treadmill.

– Infielder Taylor Green has had another setback in his return from a left hip labrum injury.

“He hopefully was going to play [Wednesday], but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be the case right now,” Ash said.

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Roenicke OK, to manage tonight

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke is expected in the dugout as usual Tuesday night after a morning bout of back spasms sent him to a Chicago emergency room.

Milwaukee’s WTMJ radio reported that news after a producer called Roenicke for his weekly segment and instead reached his wife, Karen. She told the station that Ron’s back had locked up around 5:30 a.m. CT, and he was taken to a local hospital.

At around 9:30 a.m. CT, a Brewers spokesperson said Roenicke has back at the team hotel and “fine.” He was expected to manage Game 2 of the Brewers-Cubs series Tuesday night.

That qualified as great news, considering the Brewers epic spate of early-season issues. Besides the fact the team is 2-4 and has already replaced its closer, Roenicke joined a growing injury report that had already claimed one first baseman (Mat Gamel) for the season, another (Corey Hart) for the first two months of the season and currently features five players on the 15-day disabled list, including two (third baseman Aramis Ramirez and reliever Chris Narveson) who were on the Opening Day roster. Plus, starting shortstop Jean Segura is day-to-day with a deep left thigh bruise.

The Brewers got one player back Monday, when Ryan Braun returned from three games missed to neck spasms. He contributed three hits, a run scored and an RBI to the team’s 7-4 win Monday in the Cubs’ home opener.

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Narveson to DL; hitter coming up

The Brewers on Monday placed left-hander Chris Narveson on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained middle finger on his pitching hand, the first move of a pending roster shuffle.

Because the team plans to use a series of upcoming off-days to skip No. 5 starter Mike Fiers, it will probably promote a position player on Tuesday to take Narveson’s spot on the 25-man roster. That move will re-balance a roster that included 13 position players and 12 hitters on Opening Day, leaving manager Ron Roenicke extremely short on the bench after a spate of injuries.

The DL is the last place Narveson wanted to land. He made only two starts in 2012 before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.

“It’s tough for him,” Roenicke said. “You go through what he went through last year, and all of a sudden you come back and get some, really a freak injury.”

Narveson had been easing back into duty in a relief role. He took to Twitter on Monday night to describe the finger injury as a roadblock.

“Unfortunately I sprained my middle finger while warming up my last outing on Saturday,” Narveson Tweeted. “Will come back stronger though.”

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Brewers making change at closer?

UPDATED at 12:10 p.m. CT — Braun is in. See below.

Manager Ron Roenicke may have had an overnight change of heart about the Brewers’ combustible closer situation.

On Sunday, after John Axford surrendered a home run for the third time in as many outings, Roenicke responded, “No, not at all,” when asked if he was considering a change. But when asked Monday morning whether he would use Axford to close the Cubs’ home opener if needed, Roenicke had a different answer.

“I need to have a discussion with ‘Ax’ on what we plan to do,” Roenicke said, “so I can’t really give you an answer until I talk to him.”

Asked to clarify whether that conversation would be about workload — Axford did go back out for a second inning of work Sunday, though he threw only 18 total pitches — Roenicke responded, “it could be that and a little otherwise.”

If the Brewers make a change, Axford’s likely replacement is 30-year-old Jim Henderson.

Roenicke would have much preferred to remove Axford after he preserved a 6-6 tie with a 1-2-3 10th inning against the D-backs on Sunday. Never mind that the first two outs drove Brewers outfielders to the warning track, or that during the third out, an Eric Chavez strikeout, Axford fired a fastball to the backstop — it was a positive inning considering Axford had surrendered a tying, ninth-inning home run against the Rockies on Opening Day and two more home runs two days later.

But Roenicke said he was forced to send Axford to the mound for a second inning because his bullpen, even though it is eight men strong — had been taxed so heavily in the season’s first homestand. When Axford entered the game, only left-hander Michael Gonzalez and right-hander Brandon Kintzler were left, because — as Roenicke revealed Monday morning — left-hander Chris Narveson is sidelined by an injured middle finger on his pitching hand.

Roenicke said Narveson was examined by a doctor Monday morning, and told reporters to expect some sort of announcement later in the day.

Reinforcements could be coming, even if Narveson’s injury is not serious. Roenicke hinted strongly that the Brewers would use a series of upcoming off-days to move fifth starter Mike Fiers to the bullpen and proceed with only four starting pitchers.

Further changes would be complicated by the Brewers’ full 40-man roster. The last pitcher cut in Spring Training, right-handed reliever Donovan Hand, is not on the 40-man.

“It’s not like we have pieces we can just slip in, and move chips around,” Roenicke said. “The pieces are a little difficult as well as [the fundamental decision about] do we move guys around?”

At the same time, the Brewers were dealing with a near-crisis of injuries to position players. Shortstop Jean Segura said Monday morning that he was unable to play because of a left thigh bruise suffered in Sunday’s loss, and left fielder Ryan Braun remained questionable with his stiff neck. Braun did take batting practice on Monday for the first time since his neck locked up during BP on Friday.

“We’ll see how it goes,” he said before taking the field.

Roenicke had two lineup cards ready. As of noon CT, 80 minutes before the first pitch, the choice had not been released to the public.

UPDATE: Braun’s BP must have gone well, because he’s playing. I can’t blame him, the way the wind is howling out to center field today. Here’s the lineup:

1. Norichika Aoki RF
2. Carlos Gomez CF
3. Ryan Braun LF
4. Rickie Weeks 2B
5. Jonathan Lucroy C
6. Alex Gonzalez SS
7. Martin Maldonado 1B
8. Yuniesky Betancourt 3B
9. Marco Estrada RHP

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Braun feeling better, but still sidelined

The bottom line for the Brewers on Sunday was that Ryan Braun’s neck was still too stiff to start against Arizona. He missed a third straight game.

“I don’t want to do status updates every day,” Braun said. “As soon as I’m able to get to a point where I have any chance to contribute and play, I’ll be playing. It’s a little bit better today than yesterday, which is a good thing. Other than that, as soon as I can play, as soon as I have any chance to contribute, I’m playing.”

He was not playing Sunday, so manager Ron Roenicke employed another new left fielder (Logan Schafer) and another new lineup, this one with second-year shortstop Jean Segura batting in Braun’s three-hole and second baseman Rickie Weeks hitting cleanup for the first time in his Major League career.

With Braun sidelined and third baseman Aramis Ramirez on the disabled list with a sprained knee, Segura and Weeks were the only two healthy Brewers regulars batting better than .286 through the team’s first five games.

Sitting has not been fun, Braun said.

“I feel like I’ve been out for a week,” he said, “and it’s been less than 48 hours since I did it. Hopefully it gets better sooner rather than later.”

Here’s that full lineup, by the way, as the Brewers debut the gold jerseys that were approved by Major League Baseball over the winter as alternates:

1. Norichika Aoki RF
2. Carlos Gomez CF
3. Jean Segura SS
4. Rickie Weeks 2B
5. Alex Gonzalez 3B
6. Logan Schafer LF
7. Yuniesky Betancourt 1B
8. Martin Maldonado C
9. Yovani Gallardo RHP

(Photo courtesy Mike Vassallo)

(Photo courtesy Mike Vassallo)

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Versatility lands Prince in big leagues

Josh Prince was the Triple-A Nashville Sounds’ starting center fielder on Opening Day and the starting shortstop on Day 2. The Brewers envisioned him developing over time into a super-utility player, a’la the Dodgers’ Jerry Hairston Jr.

That project will have to continue in the Major Leagues, because on Day 3, Prince was in Milwaukee.

The Brewers promoted the 25-year-old on Saturday to replace third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained left knee.

“With ‘Ramie’ out and uncertainly on [left fielder Ryan Braun, sidelined by a stiff neck], we needed somebody who could cover you both ways,” assistant general manager Gord Ash said.

Prince fit that bill. He was originally a shortstop but was moved last season to the Double-A Huntsville outfield. A scorching-hot Arizona Fall League (Prince batted .404 with 14 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 25 games) earned him a spot on Milwaukee’s 40-man roster.

When he was optioned to Nashville in March, the Brewers talked to Prince about playing all over — second base, third base, shortstop and all three outfield positions.

“It’s being in the right place at the right time,” Prince said of his unexpected promotion. “I’m a very religious guy, so I believe everything happens for a reason.”

He welcomed the comparison to Hairston, who played a big role in the Brewers’ 2011 postseason run and has played for nine different teams in parts of 16 Major League seasons.

“He definitely has come up. He’s a guy who has done it for 15, 16 years, and has done a great job at it,” Prince said. “Being able to play the infield and play the outfield, especially in the National League, it pretty valuable.”

A year ago, Prince was not considered a big-time prospect. On Saturday, at Miller Park for the first time since a pre-Draft workout in 2009, he was a Major Leaguer.

“I’m still pretty speechless,” he said. “I’m trying to stay even-keeled, not try to get too many ups or too many downs. Just enjoy the moment.”

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Ramirez to DL; Braun still sidelined

Some notes from a newsy Saturday afternoon at Miller Park:

– The lead item: An MRI scan confirmed a sprained knee for third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list and replaced on the active roster by Josh Prince, a former shortstop who converted to the outfield last season and was planning to spend this year adjusting to a super-utility role, a’la Jerry Hairston Jr. Two games into that project, he was promoted to the Majors.

Said Ramirez of the MRI result, “It could have been worse. But it’s basically the same injury I got in Spring Training. Last night, I didn’t feel good. There’s never a good time for injuries, but at least it’s not that serious.”

– The Brewers were also without three-hole hitter Ryan Braun, whose neck remained completely locked-up on Saturday afternoon.

“It’s not any better today than it was yesterday,” said Braun, who first felt stiffness during a Friday afternoon workout. “All I can do is wait.”

Assistant GM Gord Ash said the club was in wait-and-see mode with its best player.

“This is literally day-to-day,” Ash said. “It’s not the cliche day-to-day. It’s literally day-to-day. I know [head athletic trainer] Dan Wright called me this morning and said it didn’t look like he was going to be available today. Not enough improvement today, but they’ll continue to treat it. Worst case scenario — because I asked — is hopefully five days. Hopefully it’s not that.”

– With Braun and Ramirez out, and Corey Hart still recovering from knee surgery, the Brewers fielded what one fan on Twitter compared to a split-squad lineup in Spring Training. That might be a little harsh, but you can judge:

1. Norichika Aoki RF
2. Jean Segura SS
3. Rickie Weeks 2B
4. Alex Gonzalez 3B
5. Jonathan Lucroy C
6. Yuniesky Betancourt SS 1B
7. Carlos Gomez CF
8. Khris Davis LF
9. Mike Fiers RHP

– If you count Prince, the Brewers now have four shortstops on their 25-man roster: Betancourt, Gonzalez, Prince and Segura.

– Manager Ron Roenicke said he chose Betancourt at first base and Gonzalez at third after talking to both players Friday night. This is the alignment they seemed most comfortable with. Martin Maldonado will also play some first base in the coming days if Gonzalez spends the bulk of his time at third.

Roenicke conceded the Brewers are thin at first base and said the team was considering other options, including outside options. Hart is expected back in mid- or late-May and Mat Gamel is out for the season after ACL surgery. Ash said another first baseman, Taylor Green, could begin playing games in extended Spring Training by the end of the coming week. Green is on the DL with a hip injury. Prince’s versatility buys the team some time.

– GM Doug Melvin had the best line of what has surely been a long and trying day:

“I don’t know,” Melvin said when asked about the spate of injuries. “I got bit by a scorpion and didn’t miss a day.”

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With Braun, Ramirez out, Brewers mull a move

The Brewers were poised to make their first roster move of the budding season after left fielder Ryan Braun missed Friday’s game with neck spasms and third baseman Aramis Ramirez re-sprained his left knee sliding into second base in the fourth inning of a 3-1 loss to the D-backs at Miller Park.

The Brewers were hopeful Braun can play Saturday night, though he spoke to reporters with a heat pad on his neck and later said he could not move his head in any direction.

The Ramirez injury is much more troubling, considering he missed two weeks in Spring Training with the same injury. He said he would undergo an MRI scan on Saturday.

“I don’t want to assume anything,” Ramirez said. “Same thing that happened in Spring Training. This time there was a little more soreness than the last time, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself because I don’t know.”

Both players were off to hot starts. Braun hit safely, scored a run and drove in a run in each of the team’s first three games of the season, and Ramirez had doubled in each of the first three games before his single on Friday. He tried to make it four games in a row, but was thrown out by Arizona left fielder Jason Kubel trying to stretch a single down the left-field line.

There is no good time for a team to lose its three- and four-hole hitters to injuries, but the Brewers are particularly thin at the moment because Corey Hart is sidelined into May while recovering from knee surgery, and the team opted to open the season with a 13-man pitching staff. That means the Brewers had only four players on the bench at the start of the season including the backup catcher.

They also have a full 40-man roster, complicating things in the event a player is promoted from Triple-A Nashville. Taylor Green and Jeff Bianchi are on the 40-man roster but are on the DL with hip injuries. The only other healthy infielder already on the 40-man is second base prospect Scooter Gennett.

“We’re going to look at it [Saturday] and make a decision,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “It’s similar to what [Ramirez] did in Spring Training, so tomorrow we’ll have a better answer as to whether it’s a DL or if we think it’s just a few days.”

Roenicke conceded Brewers may err on the side of the DL because their bench is so short.

“We’re going to have to cover ourselves,” he said. “It’s going to be tough. If we think ‘Ramie’ is going to be out 7-10 days at least, we may decide just to DL him. For one, to make sure he’s 100 percent when he comes back. And also with the short bench, we’ve got to get somebody in here.”

There was hope for a speedy recovery for Braun, who began feeling stiffness in his neck during a workout Friday afternoon. He received treatment from the team’s athletic trainers, but the right side of his neck “locked up” during his second round of batting practice.

“I’ve had a sore neck from sleeping, but not like this, not to the point where I can’t move my neck,” Braun said.

He added: “I don’t think there is ever a good time, but it certainly makes it more challenging when there are multiple guys dealing with stuff. I think your depth is always challenged as a team, and we’re going through one of those phases where, hopefully, other guys have a chance to step up, and need to step up.”

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What to do with Axford?

The answer: Probably nothing.

More on that later.

Yes, Brewers closer John Axford is off to a poor start. He has recorded fewer outs (five) then he has recorded hits (six, including three home runs) in his first two appearances of 2013. He worked Wednesday with the Brewers trailing, 4-3, and surrendered a two-run home run to Michael Cuddyer and a solo shot to Dexter Fowler, the same Rockies outfielder whose solo shot on Opening Day handed Axford his first blown save of the season.

Most alarming Wednesday was that Axford’s first four fastballs registered 91-92 mph on the radar gun, when he typically touches 97 mph. He did get up to 94 mph before manager Ron Roenicke called for Tom Gorzelanny after Axford surrendered the fifth hit of the inning.

“It was way down,” Roenicke said of his closer’s velocity, “so we’ll talk to him and see how he’s doing.”

Axford reported feeling “fine.”

“I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Roenicke wondered aloud whether the fact Axford was pitching with a 4-3 deficit could have played a role. Considering he had not pitched Tuesday, and the Brewers are off Thursday, Roenicke wanted to give Axford an inning to keep him sharp, but noted that closers often struggle for some reason when pitching in non-save situations.

What did Axford think of that explanation?

“It shouldn’t be [a factor],” he said. “I’ve never made it one. You want to go out there with the same intensity, the same enthusiasm, not matter what the situation is. That’s a one-run ballgame right there, you know? If I put up a zero, we have a really good opportunity to win that game in the ninth, especially with our offense. I just didn’t come through, didn’t do my job of holding us there.”

He was not the only culprit in the series, won by the Rockies, two games to one. None of the Brewers’ three starters — Yovani Gallardo, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta — made it through the sixth inning. The Rockies finished the series with 41 hits including eight home runs.

When I asked Carlos Gomez whether he worried about the Brewers’ pitching, Gomez answered twice: “It’s only three games. It’s only three games.”

Axford urged patience in forming opinions about this staff.

“It’s way too early,” Axford said. “I was off to a worse start in 2011. People formed opinions then, too, and things can change. It’s a long season.”

Surely, Axford will be a hot topic on the Internet and talk radio Thursday, when the Brewers are off. But a change is exceptionally unlikely this early in the season, unless there is an explanation for the drop in velocity that we do not know about.

If you remove Axford, you have to have a better option. Jim Henderson is the Brewers’ Plan B, but he had an uneven spring and is still proving himself as a Major League pitcher. Michael Gonzalez has closed games before, but he is still gaining Roenicke’s confidence. Alfredo Figaro is hot right now, but he’s a starting pitcher just adjusting to the bullpen.

I’m guessing Roenicke will be asked the question on Friday, and I’m guessing he’ll answer like this: “Axford is my closer.”

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