May 2013

Bittersweet Mother’s Day for Fiers

It was a very bittersweet Mother’s Day for Brewers right-hander Mike Fiers, who re-joined the team after being recalled from the Minor Leagues. On one hand he was back in the big leagues. On the other hand, that meant leaving his mother’s bedside in Florida, where she remains hospitalized in grave health.

“I asked my mom, what do you think?” Fiers said. “She said, ‘Yeah, get out of here. You’ve got a job.’

“I want to stay there with her as much as possible, but she understands these opportunities don’t come too often. We had Mother’s Day yesterday, so [it was comforting] just to be with her that whole day and knowing she wants me to do my job here. She would rather see me up in the big leagues than sitting with  her, even though we have great times together.”

His mother, Linda Korman has suffered for many years from lupus, an autoimmune disease. Recently, Fiers said, she began having difficulty breathing.

“It was tough for her to breathe, to walk from the bed to the couch, which is ten steps,” Fiers said. “She was out of breath.”

Doctors delivered very bad news.

“Everything — her kidneys, liver lungs — everything was shutting down,” Fiers said. “The kidneys is the biggest thing.”

The prognosis was grim.

“The doctors, early on, didn’t really have a bright side to it,” he said. “I had to definitely be there.”

So Fiers, who began the season in the Brewers’ rotation but was demoted to Triple-A Nashville after one start, began commuting between starts to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. to be with his mother. Last week, the Brewers made it easier for Fiers by transferring him to Class A Brevard County, about two hours’ drive from home. He made one start there on Wednesday, and on his non-pitching days would work out at the ballpark in the morning before driving down to be with his mom.

“I have to thank them, for sure,” Fiers said.

He was with Linda on Saturday before Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash called offering a promotion to the Majors.

Mom didn’t hesitate. Go, she said.

After the last two days, good days, Fiers said, he decided to go. He rose at 5 a.m. ET on Sunday and spent about 45 minutes with his mother in the hospital before leaving for the airport and a flight to Cincinnati.

“I did see improvement in the last two days,” Fiers said. “She’s been in there for two weeks now, and the last two days were very, very, very, good, in the sense of her interacting a little bit more and just having more energy, not just sitting there. It was tough for a while to go in there and see her in that position.”

He was badly needed by the Brewers, who got only four innings from starter Yovani Gallardo on Friday and three innings from Hiram Burgos on Saturday.

“There’s definitely a lot going on,” Fiers said. “It’s tough. The game of baseball is a lot and you try to make it as simple as possible. Then you’ve got things outside that kind of makes it a little tougher. The only thing I can do is make it as simple as possible. Just think about the game out there and just try to help this team win. I’m trying to stay mentally strong.”

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Estrada speaks of renewed confidence

Six days after saying he felt “lost” throughout a dismal start against the Cardinals, Brewers right-hander Marco Estrada sounded like a new man on Saturday.

The team is giving him two extra days off between starts, a break that afforded Estrada an extra bullpen session with pitching coach Rick Kranitz and, just as importantly, an opportunity to clear his mind of the frustration that dragged him down Sunday against St. Louis, against whom he surrendered nearly as many earned runs (eight) as he recorded outs (10). He had never walked more than three batters in 100 previous Major League appearances, including 38 starts, but walked four batters Sunday before the end of the second inning.

It was the most lost Estrada had ever felt on a mound.

“By far,” Estrada said. “It was a feeling that I’ve forgotten about. I don’t want to go back there again. It was scary, you know?

“It was one of those days where nothing was working. Not my body, not my arm angle, not the mental aspect of it. Nothing.”

And now?

“I feel a million times better,” Estrada said. “I know those things are going to happen, but I didn’t like how the mental aspect of it was lost. Normally, I feel like I have pretty good control over that. I didn’t have it that day, but I’ve worked on it. Mentally, right now, I’m pretty strong.”

Instead of pitching Saturday against the Reds as originally scheduled, Estrada will  pitch Monday in Pittsburgh.

He threw his regular between-starts bullpen on Wednesday in Milwaukee and threw another this weekend in Cincinnati. The Brewers would have preferred to have Estrada skip a start entirely, but that was not possible since Friday began a stretch of 13 games in as many days.

“I didn’t really change anything except I threw two bullpens in between,” Estrada said. “Mentally, I feel like I’ve prepared really well. I’m feeling pretty good right now. We worked on a couple of things in the ‘pen, and today we’re going to do a couple more things that should help me out with balance and whatnot. … It is different, but it’s good to have. When you have these extra days off, you have to take advantage of them.”

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Estrada key to Brewers’ pitching shuffle

The Brewers re-aligned their pitching rotation today, slotting Hiram Burgos back into the mix for Saturday’s game against the Reds and bumping Marco Estrada from Saturday in Cincinnati to Monday in Pittsburgh, and Kyle Lohse from Monday to Tuesday.

This was mostly about Estrada, who has surrendered 13 earned runs and four home runs in 8 1/3 innings over his last two starts, including a miserable outing against the Cardinals on Sunday in which he issued a career-high five walks and surrendered nearly as many earned runs (eight) as he recorded outs (10). Estrada said afterward that he felt “lost.”

“I would say if it could have worked out where we could have completely missed a start with him, we would have thought about doing that,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “Where we can just try to regroup and see if we can get some things back; a couple of bullpens with [pitching coach Rick Kranitz]. We’re just trying to figure how to best get him back the way he was.”

The schedule did not allow that. Friday marked the first of 13 scheduled game days.

Did they consider bringing in another starter to give Estrada a break?

“No, we didn’t talk about that, and hopefully it doesn’t get to that,” Roenicke said. “We all know what he’s like when he’s pitching well. All of us would like to see, somehow, how he we get him back to that point. He feels fine.”

Asked for his thoughts, Estrada said simply, “They just thought it would be best to give me two extra days.”

As a result of the move, Estrada will make four consecutive starts against the Pirates and Cardinals but will miss the Reds and cozy Great American Ball Park, making his next start instead at spacious PNC Park, where he has allowed only two runs on 10 hits in 14 innings in two previous starts.

But Estrada will then have to pitch against the Cardinals, who he would have missed in the original alignment. He is 0-4 with a 6.59 ERA against St. Louis with a .311 opponents’ average.

As for Burgos, the Brewers had skipped Burgos’ last start amid two team off-days in the span of four days, but now need him because they are scheduled to play 13 consecutive days, then a day off, then 20 more consecutive days.

When he takes the mound Saturday, Burgos will have had nine days off between starts. He reported to Miller Park at about 2 p.m. CT on Thursday to throw a bullpen session and said the long layoff would be no big deal.

“I had to do it because the team needed it, and I was fine with that,” Burgos said. “I stayed in the bullpen for the series with the Texas Rangers, and yesterday on the day off I threw a bullpen. I was still on the mound. I did my workouts. My arm feels good. Whenever I get the chance to pitch, I have to do my job.”

Dealing with the abnormal schedule, he said, “is more mental. I’m ready to pitch. Like I always say, I want the ball.”

Here’s a list of the Brewers’ upcoming pitching matchups to reflect the changes:

Friday at CIN: Gallardo (3-1, 4.50 ERA) vs. Cingrani (3-3, 2.57 ERA)
Saturday at CIN: Burgos (1-0, 3.00) vs. Latos (3-0, 2.23)
Sunday at CIN: Peralta (3-2, 5.54) vs. Arroyo (2-4, 4.30)

Monday at PIT: Estrada (2-2, 6.05) vs. Burnett (3-3, 2.57)
Tuesday at PIT: Lohse (1-4, 3.53) vs/ Locke (3-1, 2.95)
Wednesday at PIT: Gallardo vs. Rodriguez
Thursday at PIT: Burgos vs. Liriano

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More on Fiers, K-Rod heading to Brevard

Privacy considerations prevented the Brewers from saying too much, but a family matter was behind right-hander Mike Fiers’ move from Triple-A Nashville to Class A Brevard County on Tuesday. Fiers’ family lives only a few hours south along Florida’s east coast from the Manatees’ home.

“He has a personal issue that he needs to be around home, so we’re trying to accommodate him,” Ash said. “He will pitch there [on Wednesday], and we’re hoping it’s just once, but we’re not 100 percent. It serves the purpose for this week, but we’re hopeful that he will make his next start back at Nashville. We’ll see how circumstances play out, but I certainly wouldn’t categorize it as a demotion.”

To the contrary, Fiers has thrown the ball well since being sent down to the Minors after one Major League start. He allowed only three earned runs in his first 17 Triple-A innings for a 1.59 ERA, with 17 strikeouts and a .197 opponents’ average.

Also headed to Brevard County on Tuesday was reliever Francisco Rodriguez, who is scheduled to pitch tonight, Thursday and Saturday before the Brewers consider a promotion to a more advanced affiliate.

The Brewers, who signed Rodriguez to a Minor League deal on April 17, have until the middle of this month to decide whether he fits in the big league bullpen. If they do not promote him to the Majors within 30 days of his signing, Rodriguez can elect free agency again.

“At this point, he’s only thrown bullpens and batting practice, so we have no real measurements,” Ash said. “But he looks fine.”

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More boos for Axford

The fans made their voices heard again Sunday, but Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was adamant: There has been no talk of sending reliever John Axford to the Minors to iron things out.

After an eight-game stretch in which it appeared he had moved past his early-season struggles, Axford heard boos as he left the mound Sunday for the second straight outing. He’d just surrendered a run on two hits and two walks while recording one out in a 10-1 loss to the Cardinals.

The appearance boosted his ERA to 9.95 and his walks plus hits per inning pitched to 2.76 over 12 2/3 innings.

“Today was the first time that I felt ‘off’ since that outing in Chicago,” Axford said, referring to an April 9 loss to the Cubs. “Every time after that, I felt good. Mechanically, the ball felt good coming out. Today was one of those days where I just didn’t physically feel like myself.”

Axford does have Minor League options remaining, but Roenicke indicated that was not a consideration at the moment.

“No, it’s not [under discussion],” Roenicke said. “We feel he can get it back together. We saw him do it last year, and still feel that he can do it. … It’s the same thing that he was in [last season], whether it’s confidence, whether it’s mechanical. If it’s mechanical, Rick [Kranitz, the pitching coach] and Lee [Tunnell, the bullpen coach] will figure it out.

“I don’t think it is mechanical, as far as not putting him in a spot where he can make good pitches. But I don’t know that it’s all mental, either. I think Ax, he goes through things like this. Even when he was really good two years ago, he still gets in full counts a lot. He’s not a guy that just commands the ball great and is a strike-thrower all the time. But working with the delivery and upstairs with the confidence, he’s got to get both of them back.”

Catcher Jonathan Lucroy also weighed in.

“He just has to get comfortable again,” Lucroy said. “He’s way too good to be doing this for long. He’s throwing 96, 97 mph, and if he can just get his off-speed over early for strikes, there’s not a lot of people who are going to have a chance. In 2011 when he was really, really good, that’s what we did — we got ahead early and put people away.”

Axford’s popularity soared at the time, because he was the key cog of a shutdown bullpen that helped the Brewers reach the 2011 National League Championship Series. But he struggled in the middle of 2012 and briefly lost the closer’s job, then lost the job again after three outings this year.

He was asked whether the boos are contributing to his trouble.

“No, because when I’m on the mound I’m locked into what I’m intending to do on the next pitch,” Axford said. “I never hear anything when I’m out there.”

What about when he is coming off the mound?

“Coming off, you hear more things,” Axford said. “If I could erase those first four outings where things weren’t there mechanically, when the velocity wasn’t there — if I could get rid of those games, then maybe things are a little bit different. Maybe I feel different. Maybe the crowd feels different, too. But it’s tough to get rid of those outings, tough to forget about them.

“So, I understand where [fans] are at. It is what it is. It’s difficult.”

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Burgos moves to Brewers’ bullpen

A pair of off-days in the span of four days next week has prompted the Brewers to temporarily shift right-hander Hiram Burgos to the bullpen.

It is definitely not a demotion. In his first three Major League starts, Burgos was 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA, 13 strikeouts and three walks. He lost two more victories to blown saves by the bullpen.

“We talked to Burgos today, and the reasoning is that if we don’t slide somebody back, I have [Kyle] Lohse and [Yovani] Gallardo going on their seventh day, and we really don’t want to do that,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “I don’t mind bumping all of them one day, but when you do it two days, it starts affecting the starters.”

A two-game Interleague Series against Texas is sandwiched between the off-days. Wily Peralta will pitch Tuesday against the Rangers and Kyle Lohse on Wednesday.

The Brewers won’t require a fifth starter again until a week later — on May 14 at Pittsburgh. They could slot Burgos back into the mix a bit earlier, on May 12 in Cincinnati, if they choose to give Peralta and the rest of the starters and extra day of rest.

Burgos will be available in relief for the two-game Rangers series.

The Brewers could have just as easily bumped Peralta, who surrendered six runs on 11 singles in a tough-luck outing against the Cardinals on Thursday night. But Roenicke said Peralta, who had delivered quality starts in each of his previous two outings, was never considered for a temporary move to the bullpen.

Club officials did discuss a variety of options for Burgos.

“We could have also sent him down and got a bullpen guy up and have him start [at Triple-A],” Roenicke said, “but we like what he’s done for us, and he’s been good out of the bullpen [in the World Baseball Classic]. So we thought we’ll keep him here, and that way we’ll have the option of sliding him in there when we think it right.”

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With visa in hand, K-Rod ready to report

Reliever Francisco Rodriguez has secured his work visa and is expected to report to a Brewers Minor League affiliate next week to begin his comeback in earnest.

The Brewers brought back Rodriguez on a Minor League contract April 17 that gave the team 30 days to evaluate the 31-year-old right-hander and determine whether he was a fit for their Major League bullpen. He had been pitching in extended Spring Training while awaiting his visa, and, with that hurdle cleared, will report next week to advanced Class A Brevard County, according to assistant general manager Gord Ash.

After 3-5 days there, Rodriguez could earn a promotion to Triple-A Nashville. By mid-May, the Brewers will have to decide whether to add Rodriguez to the Major League roster or offer him his release.

Ash stressed that it must be a good fit for both sides.

“He could be pitching extraordinarily well and if we don’t need him, we don’t need him,” Ash said. “And on the other hand, if we’re pitching poorly and he’s pitching poorly, then that doesn’t make sense either. Once you add him, it’s guaranteed. It’s not like you can change your mind a week later and save the money.”

Rodriguez would earn a prorated portion of a base salary in the low $2 million range.

Rodriguez spent the last two years with the Brewers after collecting at least 20 saves in seven straight seasons with the Angels and Mets. He struck out 72 batters in 72 innings last year with a 4.38 ERA, but faltered when offered an opportunity to close games in mid-July. The Brewers let Rodriguez depart via free agency after the season.

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Axford responds to fans’ booing

John Axford’s May began much like his April, with one big swing and a bigger dose of frustration.

Starling Marte’s two-run homer off Axford tied the game in the eighth inning and the Pirates kept going, avoiding a three-game sweep by scoring four times in the inning to beat the Brewers, 6-4, at Miller Park on Wednesday.

The loss snapped the Brewers’ nine-game winning streak over the Pirates and saw Axford showered with boos from many in a crowd of 26,079, They did not sound like they cared that the Pirates’ rally began with a broken-bat infield hit, or that Marte found a way to golf a fastball well below the strike zone, or that the go-ahead run scored when Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks kicked a bloop hit further into right field, or that Axford had pitched to a 1.23 ERA and a .192 opponents’ batting average over his eight previous appearances.

They booed the bottom line instead: Six home runs off Axford in 11 1/3 innings, two blown saves, an 0-3 record and a 10.32 ERA.

“Fans are fans,” Axford said. “I know what I can do, I know what I’ve accomplished here, even if they forget about it. I’ve thrown well recently, and put together with the last few years I’ve been here — I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but it’s better than a lot of other relievers around in the league.

“It’s a short-term memory for a lot of fans. Obviously, they forget what I’ve done in the past, and it’s easy for them to do. Right now, I’m just going to keep trying to get the job done.”

Brewers starter Hiram Burgos pitched seven quality innings, Carlos Gomez and Yuniesky Betancourt hit back-to-back home runs in a go-ahead fourth inning and Ryan Braun and Jean Segura added an RBI apiece as Milwaukee built a 4-2 lead and moved within six outs of their 13th series sweep of the Pirates at Miller Park in the past seven seasons.

Axford quickly saw the lead slip away. Pinch-hitter Travis Snider led off the eighth with an infield single before Marte dropped the barrel of his bat at a low fastball on the inner half of the plate and sent it over the wall in left-center field. It was a much better pitch than the one the Rockies’ Dexter Fowler hit precisely one month earlier, spoiling Axford’s season debut on Opening Day.

The Brewers won that game, but were not as fortunate on Wednesday.

Jose Tabata kept the Pirates’ rally going with a single, and after Axford recorded the inning’s first two outs, Brandon Inge hit a blooper to shallow right field. Not only couldn’t Brewers second baseman Weeks catch it, but he couldn’t glove the bounce, either, instead kicking the ball farther into right field for an error that allowed the Pirates go-ahead run to score.

With Axford out of the game and Michael Gonzalez in, Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez added insurance with an RBI single that capped a four-run inning. Alvarez also homered in the game, as the Pirates snapped their eight-game losing streak at Miller Park.

“All four of the pitches that were hits appeared to be out of the zone,” he said. “In all honesty, I went back and looked at the tape, too, and the one to Marte was on the plate but it was below his knees, it was down and it even had a little run on it. … It’s tough. You have to give credit where credit is due, and the Pirates hitters did a good job.”

He referred to it as “my bad luck today.”

Judging by the boos, some fans did not see it that way.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily fair,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “This guy has been pitching well for us, and if you look at what he’s done for the last three years, if you compare him to other people in the league — pretty good. I still obviously like him a lot, and every time I put him out there, I think he’s going to do a good job.”

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