So long, long relief: Thornburg thriving late

(Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

(Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

Brewers right-hander Tyler Thornburg still wants to be a starting pitcher in the Major Leagues, but for now, he sure looks good as a reliever.

Pegged as the Brewers’ long man on Opening Day, the 25-year-old has evolved quickly into a bona fide set-up man. In Wednesday’s win over the Padres, Thornburg made his 11th consecutive scoreless appearance since allowing a run in his season debut, and will enter a series against the Cubs on Friday with 12 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings, a 0.73 ERA and a .143 opponents’ average.

During one stretch, Thornburg retired 21 consecutive batters over seven outings, the Brewers’ longest such streak since Derrick Turnbow set down 22 in a row during his run as a dominating closer in 2005. Thornburg’s streak was finally snapped when the reigning National League MVP, Andrew McCutchen, smacked a double last week in Pittsburgh.

“Who knows?” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “This guy could end up being a closer. I don’t know.”

Roenicke isn’t playing hard to get: He really does not know what the future holds for Thornburg. Neither does general manager Doug Melvin, who, like Roenicke, is keeping an open mind about Thornburg’s ultimate role, saying the Brewers will make their call based on organizational need. Ditto, they say, for left-hander Will Smith, who is off to a similarly sensational start in relief.

Thornburg is honest about his personal preference.

“I mean, I honestly feel like throwing 200 innings a year to help your team win baseball games is going to do a little bit more than throwing 80,” Thornburg said. “Yeah, ultimately, I’d like to be a starter, just because I could help the team win more with that many innings. But again, the late innings decide a ton of ballgames.”

So far this year, Thornburg’s velocity is up (93.9 mph average fastball, according to data from, his curveball is still sharp and his change-up is being featured more often.

He’s staying open-minded about his future.

“Any time you’re doing something well, you can see yourself doing something like that,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s anything like, ‘I’m good at this, I want to be a reliever.’ Heck, what was my ERA as a starter last year? It’s one of those things that the toughest thing is bouncing around and not getting used to one thing. I feel like as long as I can get used to one thing — if I can get used to being a reliever, I can do a really, really good job.”

For more on Thornburg’s thriving in relief, check later today for the full story. For now, what do you think?


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Hellweg has torn elbow ligament

Right-hander Johnny Hellweg, the Brewers’ No. 7 prospect according to, was diagnosed today with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, an injury that often requires so-called Tommy John surgery and a 12-18 month rehabilitation.

The diagnosis followed an examination in Milwaukee with the Brewers’ head physician, Dr. William Raasch. Assistant general manager Gord Ash declined to say whether the ligament was fully torn or partially torn, pending Hellweg’s appointment next week with Dr. James Andrews. The club would know more then about a prognosis, Ash said.

Hellweg last pitched Sunday in Omaha, allowing two earned runs on four hits in 3 2/3 innings, with one strikeout and five walks. He felt a pop in his elbow and threw nine more pitches before leaving the game.

“There were no warning signs of any kind,” Ash said.

Hellweg joins a growing list of professional pitchers dealing with a potentially serious elbow injury this season, including the Rays’ Matt Moore and the Yankees’ Ivan Nova most recently. Brandon Beachy, Patrick Corbin, Kris Medlen and Jarrod Parker have undergone Tommy John surgery in recent weeks. 

“I don’t know if I’d call it an epidemic, but it’s certainly been an injury of note this season,” Ash said. “We had two [Tommy John surgeries in the Minor League system] last year. We’re probably on the lower number of clubs in this over the last four or five years.”

The 25-year-old Hellweg came to the Brewers from the Angels along with shortstop Jean Segura and right-hander Ariel Pena in a July 2012 trade for Zack Greinke. He was the Pacific Coast League pitcher of the year in 2013, going 12-5 with a 3.15 ERA, but struggled in a Major League call-up. He began 2014 back at Triple-A Nashville and was 1-2 with a 4.95 ERA in four starts.


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Gomez: ‘It’s 2014. It’s a game. Just enjoy it’

“I’ve got nothing to say because that’s in the past,” Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez told reporters Monday afternoon, referring to his role in Sunday’s throwdown with the Pirates at PNC Park. “We’ve got a game today, and it is important.”

Then he talked anyway, for about five minutes. Gomezsoftened on his stance that he would appeal any suspension. Now he wants to hear Joe Torre’s ruling first.

“To be honest, I don’t know anything,” Gomez said. “I’ve just been watching TV, and the only thing I hear is my dad and my mother talking to me. They don’t want to see something like that. I said, ‘I don’t mean to do that, but things happen in the game. We know it’s not good for baseball, but when you have 50 men outside, something can happen. It’s not like we wanted things to happen like that. It’s what it is, and we have to move. That’s in the past.”

He referenced the fact he was suspended after a similar showdown with the Braves last year, when Gomez took a long look at a home run off Paul Maholm an then shouted at Maholm on the way to first base. Gomez believes Maholm intentionally hit him with a pitch on purpose in June. After the ensuing altercation, Gomez accepted a one-game suspension and apologized.

Not this time.

“Last year was a different case,” Gomez said. “Last year, I know I didn’t start running. That’s why I apologized last year, because I disrespected the Braves. I’m not that guy. It was the heat of the moment, and I don’t try to disrespect nobody. Before everything happened [on Sunday], I’m not planning this, like, ‘OK, I’m going to hit the ball, I’m going to do this.’ It just happened like that.

“I’m not looking at anything. Ninety-nine percent of my home runs, by doubles, I don’t know where the ball lands. Ask my teammates. I ask every day, ‘Where did the ball land?’ They say, ‘Is this a joke?’ I say, ‘No, I don’t look where the ball goes.’ I don’t look at the pitchers. That’s just the way I throw the bat when I hit the ball. And I run the bases hard, like anybody, with my head down. That’s it. People say the worst stuff about things I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s not like disrespect. It’s not like I show people up. I don’t get sensitive when they strike me out. I don’t say, ‘Hey, why you throw me 98?’ ‘Why you throw me a slider in the dirt? Why you throw me a fastball in the neck?’ This is baseball.

“It’s 2014. It’s a game. Just enjoy it. Whoever does the best job in the field is the one who’s going to win games. That’s the only reason we’re here, to win games. It’s not to go fight, it’s not for complicated stuff. It’s to compete. That’s what I like to do, compete.”

Ron Roenicke talked to Gomez today.

The message, Gomez said, was “It’s OK. We know what happened. You don’t have to apologize because you didn’t start nothing.”


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Report says no fines, suspensions today

Joel Sherman of MLB Network and the  New York Post is reporting via Twitter that the Fieldin Culbreth-led umpiring crew overseeing Sunday’s fracas between the Brewers and Pirates at PNC Park is traveling today and will not file its detailed reports on the incident to the Commissioner’s Office until late in the day. Because Major League baseball’s Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe Torre will need time to review those materials, he is not expected to levy fines or suspensions until Tuesday.

That means the Brewers will be all hands on deck Monday night for their series opener against San Diego at Miller Park.

They probably would have been near full-strength anyway, because Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez made clear Sunday night that he would appeal a suspension this time, unlike last September when he accepted a one-game ban after a showdown with the Atlanta Braves. This time, Gomez said he believes he did nothing wrong when he took some time getting out of the batter’s box on what proved a third-inning triple off Pirates starter Gerrit Cole.

You have probably already seen what happened next. Cole had sharp words for Gomez, who responded, drawing first Pirates players and then Brewers players out of their respective dugouts and bullpens. Punches were thrown, including Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado’s right hook to Pirates reserve Travis Snider, and Gomez, Snider and Brewers bench coach Jerry Narron were ejected.

“I’m not apologizing for nothing I did,” Gomez said after the Brewers’ 14-inning, 3-2 victory. “This is my job, I’ve been doing it for eight years like that. They know I play like that. It’s not to disrespect nobody.”

Countered Cole: “I grabbed the ball from [third baseman Josh] Harrison and I said, ‘If you’re going to hit a home run, you can watch it. If you’re going to hit a fly ball to center field, don’t watch it.’ I didn’t curse at him, I didn’t try to provoke a fight. I was frustrated, and I let my emotions get the better of me and I ended up getting one of my teammates hurt, so I’m not too thrilled about it.”

Snider had a cut on his face after the game but did not speak to reporters Sunday.

Maldonado posted on Twitter about the incident.

“To All Baseball Fans,” he wrote. “My sincere apologies for today’s incident. I hope you all understand that I have to back up my team.”

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said he believes multiple players from each team will be suspended and fined. Players have the right to appeal, and continue to play until their case is heard. When a suspension is made final for on-field incidents like this one, players’ teams play short while they are banned.

In the case of Maldonado, that could be a bit tricky for the Brewers, who, like most teams, carry only two catchers. One of their emergency catchers is outfielder Logan Schafer, but he was placed on the disabled list, retroactive to Friday, with a right hamstring strain. So utility men Jeff Bianchi or Elian Herrera might be the next line of defense.

Herrera is the only true backup outfielder on the roster, and would presumably play during a suspension for Gomez.


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Brewers’ hot start has shades of ’87

620wtmj_041912sveumThe Brewers woke up on Easter Sunday with the best record in baseball thanks to an early-season hot streak fueled by high-leverage hits and shutdown relief.

Shades of 1987, anyone?

“These guys have a mentality right now, I think, that they feel like they can come back and win ballgames,” said Brewers TV analyst Schroeder. “They’ve got a lot of confidence. I remember feeling that way in ’87 when we started the season.”

Schroeder shared catching duties with B.J. Surhoff in 1987, when the Brewers started the season 13-0 to set an American League record and tie the mark for the best start in Major League history. Win No. 12 was one of the most memorable in franchise history, sealed on a sunny Easter Sunday at Milwaukee County Stadium when Rob Deer crushing a tying, three-run home run with one out in the ninth inning against the Rangers and Dale Sveum added a winning two-run shot with two outs.

Those Brewers came from behind again in Chicago two days later, getting seventh-inning RBI hits from Paul Molitor and Robin Yount to beat the White Sox, with Dan Plesac logging his fifth save in as many tries. The 13-0 start tied a record set by the ’82 Atlanta Braves.

Schroeder didn’t play Easter Sunday, but he worked a leadoff walk that sparked the winning rally in win No. 13.

“I try not to make comparisons, but I do remember that we felt like we were kind of invincible there for a while,” Schroeder said. “When I watch these guys today, I don’t really think of ’87. I really don’t ever do that because it’s hard to compare the two.

“But I think these guys have similar confidence in that when they make mistakes, they brush them off. The last two games [Friday and Saturday against the Pirates], they had no business winning.”

The ’87 team was different, Bob Uecker said, in that manager Tom Trebelhorn played much more station-to-station than current manager Ron Roenicke, and the Brewers had more of an identity as a powerhouse offense. They went cold in May, losing 12 in a row in one stretch.

But games like Saturday’s win over the Pirates offer some subtle similarities to the ’87 club’s hot start. Trailing most of the night after Rickie Weeks’ fourth-inning error led to a five-run Pirates rally, Ryan Braun homered in the seventh inning to make it a one-run game and added a two-run shot in the ninth against Jason Grilli, who had gone 17 straight appearances against the Brewers without allowing a run. Brewers closer Francisco Rodriguez worked the ninth for his sixth save in as many tries.

It was the Brewers’ fifth come-from-behind victory, and gave them an MLB-best 13-5 record.

“When you’re going good, bad things happen but you don’t even look at them as bad,” Uecker said. “They don’t seem like a big deal. When you get into one of those streaks, you expect to win. These guys expect to win right now.”


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Schafer slowed after hamstring tweak

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke wouldn’t hand his opponents an advantage by definitively saying so, but backup outfielder Logan Schafer was essentially sidelined Saturday by a minor hamstring injury.

Schafer said he felt a small pop in his right hamstring while stretching in the on-deck circle Thursday night, partially explaining why he opted to attempt to bunt with two strikes in the Brewers’ eventual loss to the Pirates, and why Elian Herrera, and not Schafer, entered the game Friday as part of a double switch.

“It’s a lot better today than it was yesterday,” Schafer said. “I’ve never had any problems with my hammy or anything. It was a little weird. I’m just getting treatment and staying on top of it.”

Said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke: “It’s better today, but it’s going to have to get a lot better by tomorrow and then we’ll make a decision with what we need to do.”

The Brewers will make a roster move Sunday morning to activate Lyle Overbay from the paternity list. If club officials are convinced Schafer won’t need a stint on the 15-day disabled list, they could return utility man Elian Herrera to Triple-A Nashville. That would leave Schafer as the only true backup outfielder.

Schafer is the first Brewer this season sidelined by a hamstring, an injury that happened to dog the Brewers last season despite the best efforts of the medical staff. This spring, Brewers medical director Roger Caplinger told about additional steps the team was undertaking to limit leg injuries.

“Josh [Seligman, Milwaukee’s strength and conditioning coordinator] has done everything he could,” Roenicke said. “Stretching, he’s changed some things to try to get to where our hamstrings are better. I don’t know, just freak things.”

“It’s something we could not prevent,” Schafer said. “This game is a tough game, tough on your physically, and I wasn’t really doing anything. I wasn’t running for a fly ball, I wasn’t running down the line. I was just stretching it out. It was one of those random things. That stuff happens in this game, and you kind of get healthy and get over it as quick as possible and get back out there as soon as you can.”

More on that bunt, which I realize has been a topic of conversation on Twitter: Schafer wound up pushing a third strike foul, and I asked him whether he decided to bunt there because he’d just felt the pop in his hamstring.

“Yes and no,” he said. “I was able to swing away; that wasn’t the manager’s call. But he did say [earlier this month in Boston] that if I have a chance to bunt with two strikes, he doesn’t mind if I try to still try and get down the bunt. In that situation, I felt like I should make sure I should get the bunt down. It just didn’t happen. … I just didn’t get the job done. Sometimes that happens.”


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All right at home, Gomez’s head back in the game

Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez reported for duty Saturday with a clear head after struggling to concentrate Friday night because of complications on the home front, illustrating the challenges that sometimes face foreign-born players and their families.

Gomez received urgent messages from wife Gerandy after a visit in Milwaukee with a new pediatrician. Their baby boy, Yadiel, had been given a clean bill of health when he was born March 29, but the doctor on Friday was concerned about Yadiel’s right hip. An x-ray confirmed that the joint was loose, a common problem with newborns, Gomez learned, known as developmental dysplasia.

Doctors told him the issue often resolves itself with time. Sometimes the baby is fitted with a brace. In the worst case scenario, surgery is necessary.

Gerandy Gomez heard “surgery” and grew very concerned. It wasn’t until the middle of the Brewers’ win over the Pirates — after Carlos had struck out twice, snapped a bat in half by slamming it into the ground, and committed an uncharacteristic bobble in center field — that he learned her concerns had been eased.

“Our pediatrician in the Dominican explained to my wife exactly what it is,” Gomez said. “It’s not bad. It’s nothing, like, I’m going to be worried about. A lot of babies are born like that.

“But yesterday was a tough time. My wife was in tears, she’s thinking and crying, and I can’t do anything because I’m here.”

Gomez collected himself enough to hit a booming home run in the fifth inning and a run-scoring single in the sixth.

“It’s because he’s so darn talented,” manager Ron Roenicke said.

But Roenicke could tell something was wrong.

“Before the game, I watched him and I knew something was different with him,” he said. “I can see that. He hasn’t been doing that stuff [with the broken bat]; all of a sudden it comes out and it’s like, ‘Wow.’”

Roenicke added: “When you’re talking about your little baby and you hear some news that’s pretty upsetting. I understand why you get upset about it.”

The language barrier can be particularly difficult in medical matters, Gomez said, but “you get used to it when you know you are in good hands. But if you have kids, when kids have something, you get upset. Like, ‘Give it to me.’ The most important thing for me is my family. When I’m not at my job, I give my complete time to my family. … The only things that I love are my belief in God, my family, and my work. Those are the only things that make me happy, and when something is wrong with that, it drives me crazy.”

By the end of Friday night, Gomez had his peace of mind restored.

“I called her, she was calm, the baby was fine,” he said. “It’s all good.”


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Brewers re-sign Jeffress to Minors deal

The Brewers have agreed to a Minor League deal with former first-round draft pick Jeremy Jeffress, marking a fresh start for a pitcher whose first tenure included two suspensions for marijuana.

Jeffress had been let go by the Blue Jays last week after allowing four earned runs on eight hits and three walks in his first 3 1/3 innings of 2014 but still averaged better than 97 mph with his four-seam fastball. He will report to the Brewers’ complex in Phoenix first, and eventually make his way to Triple-A Nashville’s bullpen.

“He still has that plus arm that you can’t find everywhere,” Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash said. “So the opportunity to collect a player with this skill set, especially at no acquisition fee, is intriguing to us. We have the history with him, obviously. We know him better than most, so we know what his support system needs to be. I think it’s a good risk.”

Since he is no longer on a 40-man roster, Jeffress is again subject to discipline should he test positive for marijuana, and one more positive test would mean a lifetime ban. The White Sox and Rays were among the dozen clubs to show interest in Jeffress before he struck a deal with the Brewers to reunite with some of his previous support system, including Ash, general manager Doug Melvin and farm director Reid Nichols, each of whom played significant roles in Jeffress’ difficult path to the Major Leagues.

Now 26, Jeffress was 18 years old when the Brewers made him the 16th overall pick in the 2006 Draft and signed him for a $1.55 million bonus. He was promising on the mound but had trouble off it, and was sent to league-mandated counseling after testing positive for a “drug of abuse” — Jeffress has since said it was marijuana — sometime early in his professional career. He garnered a 50-game suspension from Major League Baseball in August 2007 after marijuana was again detected in his system, and a 100-game suspension in June 2009 after a third positive test. Along the way, he developed high anxiety and seizures, which Jeffress did not get under control until last year when he was diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy.

The Brewers added Jeffress to their roster in June 2010 after he returned from suspension and converted to relief. Jeffress finished that year with a 10-game stint in the Majors, posting a 2.70 ERA in 10 games, before being packaged with other prospects and traded to the Royals for Zack Greinke in December 2010.

At the time, Jeffress was “getting better,” Ash said. “I think he is much more mature now. He has a child. He has, I think, a different view of life. He has his health in order in terms of medications that he needs to take for his seizures and so on. He hasn’t had one for almost a year now. All of those things, and because of his ability, frankly, he felt good about coming back here. I’m told he had a number of opportunities to go other places, and he chose to come here because he felt the support system is in place and he had some unfonished business here. He wants to succeed as a Brewer.”

In 40 Major League appearances with the Royals and Blue Jays since the trade, Jeffress has a 4.89 ERA in 40 relief appearances, with 42 strikeouts and 32 walks in 42 1/3 innings.


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Voice of Badgers debuts on Brewers TV

Matt Lepay has called seven Rose Bowls and two Final Fours as the statewide radio voice of the Wisconsin Badgers for the last 26 years, his latest basketball national semifinal not two weeks ago. Yet he was a nervous rookie before his first Major League Baseball broadcast on Thursday.

“If I told you anything else, I would be lying,” Lepay said as the Brewers prepared for batting practice Thursday. “I am a nervous dude.’”

Lepay is the newest member of the FS Wisconsin television team, and is teaming with veteran color analyst Bill Schroeder during the Brewers-Pirates series this week while regular play-by-play man Brian Anderson works the NBA playoffs for TBS.

Lepay has very little experience calling baseball, and was clear with Brewers officials about that as they conducted their search. As a budding broadcaster in southwest Ohio, he called some American Legion games for a local station, and later broadcast a Class A Madison Muskies game as a favor to that team’s GM.

“I told them, ‘I did it, but you’ll have to take my word for it, because I have no idea where the cassette tape is,’” Lepay said.

The Brewers and FS Wisconsin announced the addition of Lepay in January, and the plan called for some practice broadcasts during Spring Training following the Badgers basketball season. But Frank Kaminsky & Co. had other plans, beating American, Oregon, Baylor and Arizona to earn a date in the Final Four against Kentucky.

Each time, Lepay had to push back his trip to Maryvale Baseball Park. In the end, the Badgers’ run extended into the Brewers’ regular season. So how did Lepay brush up on baseball?

“It’s hard to explain, but guys who do what I do — at least I think this is the case — can sit at home, watch the game, and in my mind, I’ll call it,” he said. “The At-Bat app became my very good friend. Even toward the end of the [Badgers’] regular season, I could be in a hotel in Lincoln, Neb. or you name it after my Badger work was done, and I’d be watching Brewers [Spring Training] games on my phone or my iPad. That was how I did it.”

It will be a significant adjustment from the pace of football and basketball.

“The pace will be different, the fact it is TV will be different, but I’m trying not to make it more than it is,” Lepay said. “Baseball is my first love, but it’s one thing for it to be your first love, and another to be the guy calling the game.”


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Weeks off to slow start as half of 2B platoon

Rickie Weeks’ Spring Training began with such promise after the longtime Brewers second baseman made what he called a “minute” adjustment to the position of his hands. He was aiming for a quicker, smoother swing, and more consistency should the Brewers return to a right/left platoon system between Weeks and Scooter Gennett.

More than two weeks into the regular season, that platoon is in place, the mechanical change is still in place, but Weeks is off to a terribly slow start.  Gennett entered Wednesday’s start hitting .273/.314/.333, while Weeks was on the bench, hitting .150/.150/.200. Pinch-hitting on Tuesday night against Cardinals left-hander Kevin Siegrest, Weeks struck out looking at a fastball down the middle.

“I see him in [batting practice], he still looks good,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “But somewhere along the line, you need to have that feeling and get some hits and feel confident, and then hopefully that carries you for a long spell.

“There’s a lot of platoon systems that work really well. The guy who’s the right-handed hitter, he’s the one who’s got the games where you might not play for two weeks.”

So the challenge for the manager is figuring out how to get Weeks going.

“It may be difficult,” Roenicke said. “We’re trying to win as many games as we can win, and I have to figure out who are the best guys to put out there that day. It’s difficult on some of them. It’s no different than a guy who is playing every single day [in the Minor Leagues], he comes to the big leagues and now he’s a bench player. It’s the same thing.”

Weeks typically does not like to discuss tough times. When a reporter approached him last week to ask about how the platoon was going, he said, “It’s just one of those things you have to do.”

Has Roenicke had more in-depth conversations?

“We talk about what I have planned, what I’m thinking,” Roenicke said. “But I don’t know past that too much.”


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