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Weeks feeling ‘great’ after hamstring scare

Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks felt a pop in the same left hamstring that required season-ending surgery last August — and was grinning ear-to-ear afterward.

This time, the pop was a good thing, Weeks said. It was scar tissue breaking free.

“I’ve been waiting for that,” Weeks said. “It’s just free now, basically.”

Weeks had singled with one out in the inning to boost his Cactus League batting average to .368. He motored all the way home on Jonathan Lucroy’s double and scored on a headfirst slide, but appeared to labor halfway between third base and the plate.

He exited the game in the next half inning, but insisted this was no setback.

“It was a little knot back there, basically,” Weeks said. “On that one, I knew I had to ‘bust it,’ and I stretched out and it just released. It kind of scared me a little bit, and then the last three steps I was like, ‘Oh, I feel good.’

“It’s a great thing, for sure. Now I’m good. … Now that I’ve had that release, I can keep strengthening it more and more, and just keep working through it.”

The 31-year-old is entering the final guaranteed season of his contract after batting .209 last year and missing the final six weeks of the season following surgery. He reported to camp at full health to battle Scooter Gennett for starting duties at second base.

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Prickly situation: K-Rod steps on a cactus

UPDATED at 7:45 p.m. CT: Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said he’d talked to K-Rod, and the plan is to pitch in Thursday’s game against the Padres. 

It’s not quite as weird as reliever Steve Sparks separating his shoulder trying to tear a phone book in two during Spring Training in 1994, or general manager Doug Melvin being stung by a scorpion last year, but the Brewers have their first oddball injury of camp:

K-Rod stepped on a cactus.

Manager Ron Roenicke said Rodriguez was questionable for his Cactus League debut after the right-hander stepped barefoot on a prickly plant Monday night or at some point during Tuesday’s team off day. As Roenicke briefed the media Wednesday morning, Rodriguez was in the trainer’s room having spines pulled from his foot.

“He took out a lot of the thorns, but there’s some more in there,” Roenicke said. “I don’t think it’s that big of a setback, but I imagine he’s pretty sore today. I don’t know if you guys have stepped on one, but you know how little some of the [spines] are, and they’re in there for a while? With Frankie, he may some in today and say, ‘I’m pitching.’ I don’t know.”

Rodriguez is already behind the other relievers because he signed late in the offseason and arrived late after securing a work visa amid political turmoil in Venezuela. Roenicke does not believe the cactus caper will prevent Rodriguez from being ready by the Brewers’ March 31 season opener.

“It’ll be tough to keep him back, the way he is,” Roenicke said. “Like I said, he may end up pitching [on Thursday as scheduled]. It could happen. I just have to talk to him and see how he’s doing.”

The Brewers made some other news Wednesday by optioning pitching prospect Johnny Hellweg to Triple-A Nashville. Roenicke also updated the status of left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, who continues to make progress in his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery but probably will not have time to be ready by Opening Day. That means opportunity for other lefties in camp, including non-roster invitee Zach Duke and Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang.

More on those stories will hit Brewers.com later today. Meanwhile, be careful if you’re walking around bare-footed.

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Brewers collecting funds for fallen officer’s family

109875Brewers players and staffers are collecting financial donations for the family of fallen Phoenix police officer John Hobbs, 43, who was killed in a daytime shootout Tuesday about three miles from Maryvale Baseball Park.

Hobbs, a 21-year veteran of the force, was based at the same Maryvale police precinct that supplies officers to provide security on Brewers game days. Flags have flown at half-staff at the ballpark and around the city all week, and the Brewers honored a moment of silence for Hobbs prior to the first game after his death.

“This touches home for us,” said bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel, who is in charge of collecting donations. “One of the officers stationed here who I know well was a partner of [Hobbs] from 10 years ago, still friends with the family. We asked if there was any way we could help.”

Hanel was directed to PLEA Charities, an arm of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association that provides financial and educational assistance to officers and their families.

The Brewers plan to present their donation to the PLEA later in the week. Fans can also donate via Paypal at AZPLEA.com.

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Ramirez: ‘I’m playing tomorrow’

Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez says he’s ready to go.

The 35-year-old veteran underwent surgery in early January to remove a benign polyp from his colon and was set back at the start of Spring Training, but ran the bases on Friday without any problems and said he would be ready to start at third base for Saturday’s game against the Royals at Maryvale Baseball Park.

As of Saturday, the Brewers will have 2o game days before their March 31 Opening Day against the Braves at Miller Park. Ramirez considers that plenty of time.

“I just have to get in playing shape,” said Ramirez, who insisted the left knee injury that hobbled him throughout last season has completely healed. “I’m going to try to avoid [sliding]. Hopefully, I don’t have to, but I’m [trying to] totally avoid sliding here. Sometimes your instincts take over, but I’m going to try to be smart about it.”

He is eager to play, and when asked why he wanted to play third base instead of ease in as a designated hitter, Ramirez said, “I don’t want to play third. I don’t like DHing. … I don’t like to be sitting around. I want to be ready for March 31.”

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Adjustments paying off early for Weeks

Rickie Weeks has made some long-debated adjustments to his batting stance, and Brewers manager Ron Roenicke loves the early results.

“Geez, he’s killing the baseball,” Roenicke said Tuesday morning, before Weeks manned second base against the A’s. “I hope he continues it. When he’s swinging the bat like this, he is really fun to watch.”

Because he arrived amid such high expectations after the Brewers made Weeks the second overall pick in the 2003 Draft, Weeks’ batting stance has long been a focus of armchair hitting coaches. Throughout his career he has held his hands particularly low, and has waggled the bat like Gary Sheffield.

Through hand injuries and advancing age, Weeks has mostly remained consistent in his stance. Now, after batting .230 in 2012 and .209 in 2013, the waggle is still there but Weeks is working on some subtle changes with his hands, Roenicke said.

“It’s not just age as you get older, [but] you learn to do different things,” Roenicke said. “I think sometimes you just realize that I’m not successful in this and I’ve got to make some improvements. Sometimes it’s with stance, sometimes it’s your thinking that changes. He’s made some adjustments, and right now, it looks really good.”

Weeks was 4-for-7 with a home run in his first three spring games.

It is a well-timed hot streak. Weeks, set to earn $11 million this season in the final guaranteed year of his contract, is in a battle with 23-year-old Scooter Gennett. When Weeks tore his left hamstring last August and needed surgery, Gennett capitalized, and finished the season batting .324 while playing better-than-advertised defense.

The Brewers insist second base is an open competition, and other Major League teams are probably watching. The Brewers could try to trade one of their second basemen later in camp, or they could institute the sort of platoon that was actually working last season before Weeks was hurt.

Weeks is making the decision difficult so far.

“If you guys watch balls come off his bat, it’s pretty scary,” Roenicke said. “He’s one of those rare guys that has that kind of pop that it doesn’t matter where he hits it.”

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Expanded replay debuts today

Today’s Brewers-Cubs game is to be televised via FS Wisconsin, broadcast via the Brewers Radio Network and available online via MLB.tv and MLB.com’s Gameday Audio — and it will be especially worth a follow. Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke revealed that today’s game is the first of three for the Brewers this spring that will feature baseball’s new system of expanded replay.

According to what my colleague Paul Hagen wrote in January, when the rule changes were approved:

Beginning this season, each manager will start a game with one challenge. If it is upheld, he retains his challenge but can never have more than two in a game. If the manager exhausts his challenges before the start of the seventh inning, he is out of luck, adding a new element of strategy to the game. Beginning in the top of the seventh, the crew chief is empowered to institute a review. …

Approximately 90 percent of all plays will be subject to review, including calls involving home runs, ground-rule doubles, fan interference, boundary calls, plays at first base, force plays, tag plays, fair-foul and trap plays in the outfield, hit by pitch, timing plays, touching the base, passing runners and any dispute involving ball-strike counts, outs, score or substitutions. All other plays, including interference and obstruction, will not be reviewable.

To initiate a review, the manager will verbally inform the umpire of his intention in a timely manner. The challenge may involve multiple portions of the same play, but each must be specified during the appeal.

Challenges must be made in a “timely manner” with discipline possible if the manager appears to be stalling.

Teams will be allowed to have a club employee monitoring video and communicating with the manager whether or not to challenge. Both the home and road teams must have equal access to all video, but no additional electronic equipment will be allowed. Camera angles in all parks will also be standardized.

Roenicke has a strategy in mind for how he will choose when to call for review of a play, and so far it appears John Shelby will be the coach stationed in the video room alerting the bench when a play should be reviewed. All of that is subject to change.

Roenicke managed his fourth Cactus League game on Sunday and said there have been two calls he would have had reviewed, including one at the plate involving Lyle Overbay in Sunday’s game against the Rockies. Overbay slid to the inside of the plate and was called out, the umpire told Roenicke, because the ump believed Overbay never touched the plate.

Overbay believes the call would have been overturned upon review.

“I didn’t get much of it, but I got enough,” said Overbay, who supports the implementation of expanded replay as long as teams do not start using it as a strategic advantage.

“The one thing I hate about football is it seems they replay anything and everything,” Overbay said. “I think ours will be different, because there won’t be a lot of plays. But I feel like sometimes it’s going to be used kind of like a time out to get pitchers ready. It won’t happen very often, but I wonder. I remember a couple of times last year in New York where we ended up going up late and Mariano [Rivera] wasn’t ready. So we’re stalling, making like something is in my eye, and some of the coaches on other teams were getting ticked. Those are things I wonder if they could come into play.

“But as long as the umpires are going along with it, I’m fine. I don’t want them to think they’re doing bad jobs. I think [the occasional close call] is part of the game. Then again, when you think about missing the playoffs by one game, [getting it right] becomes a big deal.”

Before you ask:  Cubs manager Rick Renteria said no, he will not have a flag in his pocket to throw on the field if he wants to challenge a call.

“I think the protocol will be if you want to challenge, you have to go out and talk to the umpire and either invoke it or he may ask me to invoke it depending on how long you stand out there conversing with him,” Renteria said.

Renteria said the umpires will try to resolve the disagreement first.

“I would imagine that if my gut is telling me immediately that I saw it completely different [he'll challenge] — but you don’t want to waste it if you don’t have to,” Renteria said. “There’s going to be some availability as it’s set up to get the information that tells you if [the call] is good or not.”

When he met with the media three hours before Monday’s scheduled first pitch, Roenicke still had plenty of questions about the procedure for Monday.

“It’s our first challenge day, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to do it,” he said. “I know they don’t have as many TV cameras set up as they are going to have [during the regular season], and I don’t know who is looking at those replays, for one to tell the umpire, but also to tell me whether I should challenge it or not. I know we have walkie-talkies, but that’s all I know. … Somebody said, ‘Well, maybe it’s just a walk through,’ but what am I supposed to walk through? I’m going to go out there and say, ‘This is my practice walk out here to see if I’m going to challenge?’ I hope we have something in place that I can say, ‘Yeah, I’d like to challenge it,’ and they can take a peek at it.”

Roenicke is mostly comfortable in the knowledge of what he can challenge and what he cannot. Eighty percent of calls, Roenicke said, will be tag plays and out-safe calls on the bases.

“We’ll just pay attention to those two things,” he said. “The others, all the judgement calls are not reviewable. Hit by pitch is reviewable. I know enough of the things that are, but I don’t know every single one.”

It can be tricky. Trap calls on the infield are not reviewable, but traps in the outfield are. Foul balls along the baselines are reviewable if they are fly balls, but not if they are ground balls because of the challenge of determining the exact angle of where the baseball crosses the bag.

On Monday, the plan called for the Brewers and Cubs broadcasts to listen in on conversations between the umpires on the field and officials in the TV truck reviewing a play. During the regular season, those reviews will happen at MLB.com’s offices in New York.

Monday’s dry run was intended simply to give on-field personnel a first taste of how the process will play out, and Roenicke was on board with that.

“I think that’s good,” he said.

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Crew closer Henderson adding to arsenal

Brewers closer Jim Henderson has yet to appear in a Cactus League game, but he and manager Ron Roenicke each assured it’s no cause for concern. The role does not require a heavy Spring Training workload, and Henderson has preferred to work amid the privacy of the back mounds at Maryvale Baseball Park because he is developing a new pitch, Roenicke said.

Roenicke said he was not merely referring to the slider refinements that Henderson mentioned earlier in camp. He was talking about an entirely new pitch.

“They can see it,” Roenicke said, referring to rival scouts, “when it happens.”

Henderson enjoyed his first full Major League season in 2013 as a 30-year-old, assuming closer duties after only one week and going on to log 28 saves in 32 appearances, with a 2.70 ERA. According to FanGraphs.com he threw all fastballs (77 percent, with an average velocity of 95.3 mph) and sliders (23 percent, 85.6 mph).

Presumably, an addition to Henderson’s arsenal would help against left-handed hitters. They managed a .786 OPS against him last season, compared to .475 for right-handed hitters. Six of the eight home runs off Henderson were produced by left-handed hitters.

“I think we’ll mess around with some stuff during the spring here,” Henderson said as camp opened. “Whether it’s a new pitch, whether it’s just defining my slider a bit more. My slider was really good in the beginning of the year last year, then it kind of [fell off]. … That’s one of the nice things, too, about this spring for me, is that I can afford to make some mistakes out there in Spring Training and not be worried about it too much. We’ll hopefully have something set in stone by the end of the spring.”

Henderson threw some live batting practice on Sunday while the rest of the Brewers played the Rockies in Scottsdale, Ariz. His next step after that could be a Cactus League game.

“There’s no reason to ramp him up quick,” Roenicke said. “He’s been working on some things, some pitches, so we backed him off.”

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K-Rod was in the middle of Venezuelan turmoil

Brewers reliever Francisco Rodriguez eagerly immersed himself in the monotony of Spring Training on Saturday after enduring some very tense weeks at the center of Venezuela’s political unrest.

Rodriguez’s homeland has been the scene of violent protests over the past month, particularly in the capital of Caracas. He signed a one-year contract with the Brewers on Feb. 7, but his home is in the heart of opposition-controlled territory and for four or five days, Rodriguez said, he could not leave “because they were burning tires and they closed the roads.” His security detail, former policemen, eventually devised a strategy to get him out.

Rodriguez acquired a work visa this week, arrived in Phoenix on Friday and reported to camp for the first time on Saturday morning.

“My girl and my two kids are here with me,” he said. “Eventually sometime this week, depending on how things go down there, I’m going to fly the rest of [his family]. Right now I’ve got to settle in here first. But that’s definitely what I have in mind. … I don’t want to have distractions being on the field and thinking, ‘What are they doing? Is everything all right at home?’

“I don’t want that distraction. The main thing I want is their safety. That’s the most important thing to me.”

Considering the circumstances, Rodriguez considers himself lucky to secure a visa the same day he applied. He is already two weeks late, and worried that another two-week delay might have impacted his game readiness for Opening Day on March 31.

“I was a little nervous about it, but thank God everything is in the past now and I can move forward,” said Rodriguez, who called the situation at home scary. “Unfortunately, it is. It is. If I said, ‘No,’ we’re lying. I have never seen so many protests, so much division. I hope they can come up with a resolution and everything can get back to peace. … There is nothing impossible in this world. I hope they can sit down, because the only people who are suffering are the Venezuelan people. Nobody else.”

Rodriguez said he would have plenty of time to get ready for the season. For more on his return to the Brewers, check the site this afternoon.

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Roenicke to Segura: Don’t change if you hit leadoff

Second-year Brewers shortstop Jean Segura batted leadoff in the team’s Cactus League opener Thursday, a good indication that he’s indeed the leading candidate to replace the departed Norichika Aoki.

Segura mostly batted second behind Aoki last season, but Aoki was traded to the Royals over the winter. Segura batted first only twice last season.

“He’s not the typical guy to do it because he’s aggressive,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “He’s a swinger. “I talked this morning to him about it a little bit. I don’t want him to change because I put him in the leadoff spot.

“That goes with everybody. When I put them in different spots in the lineup, I just want guys to hit. We move them around sometimes for necessity, and it doesn’t mean you hit fourth and all of a sudeen you have to start swinging for the fence. [Segura] is a guy that’s aggressive and needs to stay that way or there’s too much mental thought going on, and he won’t produce.”

Segura finished the season with a team-best .294 batting average and was second in the National League with 44 stolen bases. But his on-base percentage was a modest .329, and his highest walk total in the Minor Leagues was 45, in 581 plate appearances at the Class A level in 2010.

“I think he’s OK with [moving to leadoff],” Roenicke said. “He’s probably a little better second, and the next couple of days, maybe we’ll put him second. I’m going to move him around. … When I like is he’s comfortable enough now to come in here and we’ll talk about things. He’s a very honest guy. Some guys don’t quite tell me everything, and he’s quite honest. It’s not that guys will lie to me, they just won’t tell me.”

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MLB announces new rule for plate collisions

I’ll have some comment from Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado later today, but for those interested, here is the news release just sent by Major League Baseball regarding changes to the rule governing collisions at home plate:

Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have officially negotiated the addition of Rule 7.13, covering collisions at home plate, on an experimental basis for the 2014 season, the parties jointly announced today.

In 2014, the rule being implemented by MLB and the MLBPA (set out below) will prohibit the most egregious collisions at home plate. The new experimental rule sets forth that:

· A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the Umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the Umpire shall declare the runner out (even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball).

· Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher, without possession of the ball, blocks the pathway of the runner, the Umpire shall call or signal the runner safe.

In determining whether a runner deviated from his pathway in order to initiate a collision, the Umpire will consider whether the runner made an effort to touch the plate, and whether he lowered his shoulders or pushed through with his hands, elbows or arms when veering toward the catcher. The rule that will be in effect in 2014 does not mandate that the runner always slide or that the catcher can never block the plate. However, runners who slide, and catchers who provide the runner with a lane to reach the plate, will never be found to be in violation of the new rule. Beginning immediately, Clubs will be required to train their runners to slide and their catchers to provide the runner with a pathway to reach the plate at all levels in their organizations.

MLB will distribute training materials throughout Spring Training and discussions on the new rule, including the retraining of catchers and base runners, will be held during MLB’s meetings with managers in the weeks ahead. Additionally, MLB and the MLBPA will form a committee of players and managers to review developments as the season progresses and to discuss the possible application of the new rule in 2015.

Finally, instant replay will be available to review potential violations of Rule 7.13. The Umpire Crew Chief will have discretion to invoke instant replay in order to determine whether Rule 7.13 was violated.

OFFICIAL BASEBALL RULE 7.13
COLLISIONS AT HOME PLATE

(1) A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the Umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the Umpire shall declare the runner out (even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball). In such circumstances, the Umpire shall call the ball dead, and all other base runners shall return to the last base touched at the time of the collision.

Rule 7.13 Comment: The failure by the runner to make an effort to touch the plate, the runner’s lowering of the shoulder, or the runner’s pushing through with his hands, elbows or arms, would support a determination that the runner deviated from the pathway in order to initiate contact with the catcher in violation of Rule 7.13. If the runner slides into the plate in an appropriate manner, he shall not be adjudged to have violated Rule 7.13. A slide shall be deemed appropriate, in the case of a feet first slide, if the runner’s buttocks and legs should hit the ground before contact with the catcher. In the case of a head first slide, a runner shall be deemed to have slid appropriately if his body should hit the ground before contact with the catcher.

(2) Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher without possession of the ball blocks the pathway of the runner, the Umpire shall call or signal the runner safe. Notwithstanding the above, it shall not be considered a violation of this Rule 7.13 if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in order to field a throw, and the Umpire determines that the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner and that contact with the runner was unavoidable.

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