Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Showing some Hart and Braun, hitting their Marc-um

Just stopping by to say hello. I feel very compelled to do so because of the recent play of the Milwaukee Brewers. The SECOND PLACE Milwaukee Brewers. This team has been flat out tearing it up ever since looking like a total dud towards the beginning of May. The reason might baffle you...starting pitching. As a former pitcher myself, I have always been a believer in a strong pitching staff correlating to late post-season runs. Then again, I'm one of the few who enjoys a good old-fashioned pitching duel that ends in a 1-0 final. Sure, the Brewers have been fun to watch during the later part of the past decade because of their ability to wow fans by hitting the long ball, but can you name the stellar starting pitchers that pitched for the Crew during this time? C.C. Sabathia! For more than half a season? Umm...Ben Sheets? Maybe Gallardo? Well don't look now, but the Brewers have three starters with an ERA under 4.00. These three pitchers, of course, are Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson. Ahhhh, what?!

That's right. The unsung ace, Mr. Jeckle and Hide and the best number five guy in the league are helping to keep this team afloat while giving Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke (the expected 1-2 punch) time to figure it out. Now that Gallardo has finally gotten there (6-2, 4.35 ERA - was 2-2 with a 6.10 ERA at one point) and Greinke is transitioning out of spring training mode, things should remain looking positive for the starting five. Gallardo and Marcum a combined 12-3 in late May? Hello. I don't want to say I was right about them in my pre-season predictions, but I seem to have had a good beat. As for my other predictions....eh, you be the judge. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make here is you can either rely on guys knocking out 200 home runs a year and finishing .500 or ride a strong staff of pitchers all the way to October. Take your pick.

What's that? You say you want both? Well, I suppose you can. The Brewers appear to have finally assembled a team that has strong pitching while still keeping their big-boppers in the lineup. Braun and Fielder are putting up monster numbers early in the year and this is especially promising from Fielder's perspective considering is usual slow starts. Jonathan Lucroy has been a pleasant surprise behind the plate ever since he came off of the DL, Rickie Weeks continues to get on base in front of Braun and Fielder (6th in NL in runs scored) and has very impressive numbers in the lead-off spot. And don't look now, but here comes Corey Hart. Tonight against the Nats, Hart put on his sunglasses and not only knocked three balls over the wall; he destroyed them. I mean, holy moley. These were no-doubters. Coming into the season, I feared that there would be a lot of question marks for the Crew once we got through the first five hitters in the lineup, but it appears that Lucroy is going to give the bottom feeders some credibility while Gomez and Betancourt attempt to make up for their lack of hitting with their dazzling defense. Wait...come again? Yuni B has looked like crap in the field, too? Oh well. We can't all be winners.

Sort-of quarter season update:

St. Louis Cardinals: 29-20
Cincinnati Reds: 25-23

Florida Marlins: 26-19
Atlanta Braves: 26-23

I'll take it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Gearing up for Greinke

Tomorrow I embark for my hometown where I'll stay for about four days. I'll be making my bi-yearly visit to the dentist and watching my 15-year-old brother participate in a JV track meet at Sussex Hamilton's new track, but once I arrive home on Friday at roughly 2 p.m., my focus will turn to my third visit to Miller Park. This isn't just any game, however; it's a Greinke game. If you look at his 2-1 record, you would probably say that sounds about right, but Greinke's abysmal 6.60 ERA and .262 opponent batting average isn't exactly what fans were looking for. Rust isn't an excuse anymore and I've picked up on a few things that Greinke might adjust for his third home start of the season where he happens to be 2-0.

First of all, command. In the early innings, it's easy for Greinke to get away with missing his spots because of how good his stuff is, but I've noticed that he usually has the best command of his pitches, especially his fastball, the first time through the order. Greinke's fifth inning against the Pirates on Sunday looked like this: 5 runs, all earned, 6 hits, 1 HR, 1 walk, 47 pitches. His final line? 5 Runs, all earned, 6 hits, 1 HR, 1 walk, 5 strike outs, 96 pitches. What the hell happened? Well, like I mentioned, command was a major issue. There was also the 12 pitch at-bat to lead off the inning by Neil Walker that really seemed to rattle Greinke, even though he retired the next two hitters he faced. Perhaps he relaxed too much and then started putting the ball on a tee for the Pirate hitters. Or perhaps...

...Greinke was tipping his pitches. Sure, he has one of the nastiest repertoires in the league, but if the batter knows what's coming next, it's just a matter of hitting it where it's pitched. I, personally could not tell if Greinke was tipping his pitches. I have a keen eye for the sport of baseball, but not that keen. There's a reason I don't play baseball anymore...even if I knew a fastball was coming next, there is no way in hell I'd be able to catch up with it. The only reason I bring this up Greinke tipping the opposing hitter is because manager Ron Roenicke mentioned the possibility after the game because of how hard he was getting hit in the fifth compared to the first four innings. If this was indeed the case, hopefully Greinke and the Brewers have gone back to look at the tape and figure out what he needs to change to avoid such a thing in the future.

Other than that, the usual excuse is to go back to how Greinke is still in "Spring Training" mode because of the time he missed in the pre-season. This is baloney. Greinke has made several starts in the minors and in the majors now and has already shown signs of brilliance, so it's just a matter of executing his pitches. Corey Hart suffered a similar slump while just coming off his injury but is now coming around and hitting around the average he batted last season. The only thing the Brewers are waiting on now is the power surge. Whether or not Hart will return to the two spot in the lineup is still uncertain, but it's all about where a batter is comfortable hitting in the order. Jonathan Lucroy, who leads the Brewers in batting average, remains in the eight spot despite his success almost immediately coming off his broken pinky finger. Lucroy seemed to have early success as well last season and then tailed off, so we can only hope that Jonny has figured out how to combat dealing with a longer season than he is used to playing. Hart's early struggles were largely due in part to the type of hitter he is: a guess hitter who hits for power. He's even come out and admitted it; he goes out there basically guessing which pitch is coming next because of how hard it is to catch up to major league pitching. Well...can you blame the guy? Anyway, it was pretty evident that fixing Hart's eye problem last season was a key to his success, so let's hope the whole "guess where the next pitch is" thing works out for the caveman.

Despite Greinke's woes and the team still trying to crawl out of its hitting slump, I believe things are moving in the right direction for the Crew. It's a wonder the Brewers are only one game below .500, and hopefully a strong outing from the Narve-dog will pull them to 22-22 in time for my visit to Miller Park to watch The Zack Attack. Should be a doozy.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

School's out for summer - now I can school you

The title says it all. After an extremely busy yet productive semester, I was forced away from the blogging scene, but I gained valuable experience by writing for the Advance-Titan at UW Oshkosh and taking a reporting class that basically drove me into the ground all semester long. Both sucked a lot of my time up, but I was able to become comfortable with the whole reporting aspect that goes along with the writing and this is a pretty big step for me in my path to becoming a sportswriter. All in all, I would say the most difficult task to conquer is learning to write like a journalist. While I took Reporting and Public Relations courses, I also took a traditional writing class in Advanced Composition, so I was forced to flip-flop between two very contrasting styles. Hopefully, it will be one of the last times I have to deal with such confusion because my brain had to work major overtime and it feels damn good to finally be done. So what's next? Finding a job. Crap.

Enough about my uneventful life. Let's get caught up on what's happened on the Wisconsin sports front since I've been gone. For those who follow the American Hockey League closely (in other words, like three people), the Milwaukee Admirals were knocked out in the semifinals in seven games by the Houston Aeros. Oh, what I would give to see an NHL franchise move into Milwaukee...or maybe even Green Bay. I mean, c'mon. Florida Panthers anybody? Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan, albeit not much of one, of the Admirals but the NHL during playoff time can't be beat. The NBA is the same way. However, even though we have the Bucks, I still favor the NHL regular season over the NBA's, which is why I prefer the NHL as a whole over the NBA. Imagine if I had a team from in-state to support. For one, the Blackhawks would go from my favorite team to my most hated team and two, the NHL would be a much bigger priority in my sports-watching life. A young adult can dream.

We also had the NFL draft, which is usually something I pay a pretty decent amount of attention. This year, I missed out on all of Saturday's action because I participated in a bags tournament. How did I do, you ask? Took home 2nd place and 100 smack-a-roos. No big deal. Suffice it to say, I missed what was going on with the later rounds. As Packer fans know, this is where GM Ted Thompson likes to do his damage so I missed quite a bit, but after reviewing the picks I have to say I like what the Packers did. Taking an offensive lineman (Derek Sherrod - Mississippi State) with the first round pick is exactly what Green Bay needed to do, especially with so many good D-linemen off the board. The second round selection of WR Randall Cobb from Kentucky was interesting, but when taking a deeper look it's possibly the best selection the World Champs made. Cobb is a possession receiver (5'11") who will replace James Jones. He has big-play ability and could be a possible fill-in at the return position next season. It was also nice to see a running back picked in the 3rd round (Alex Green - Hawaii), especially one who put up monstrous stats in his final year of school. People are saying he could be a guy that catches a lot of balls out of the backfield, but he did come from a shotgun offense so there could be that adjustment period for Green as far as getting used to a pro offense. Did I mention that he also attended Butte Community College? That sounds familiar...hmmm. Moving on, the fourth round pick of CB Davon House from New Mexico State was a steal at that stage of the draft, so he could perhaps work his way into some nickel/dime packages and be the guy in waiting for Woodson. The Packers also took a tight end from Arkansas in D.J. Williams, arguably the best TE in the draft and someone who had a rough childhood that could be a great guy to have in the locker room. Snatching up a few defensive linemen in the late rounds as well as an O-lineman, a linebacker and another tight end (strange) left me feeling extremely good about the 2011 draft class of the Green Bay Packers...I hope you feel the same after my brief and optimistic analysis. Here's to actually having a 2011-2012 NFL Season!

Last but not least, the Milwaukee Brewers. I'll tell you one thing: thank God for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The most recent series was relatively easy on the heart and placed the Brewers back in my good graces following one of the most pathetic stretches of baseball I've seen in forever. Seriously. That was awful. However, a 5-1 home stand has injected some optimism into Brewer fans and being in third place while just four games out of first in the central is reassuring to say the least. The split between the success at home and horrendous play on the road is concerning, no doubt, but to get the bats going and score enough runs to support some rather dismal pitching was good to see. Braun has been a maniac, Fielder has had one of his best starts to a season as a Brewer and Weeks and Lucroy have been very solid as of late. But let’s get back to the pitching. Not only has the bullpen been failing to get the job done, but the pitchers in the Brewers' starting staff have taken turns being awful. Greinke trying to find his groove is understandable, but I still expected better from him coming off of his injury. Wolf managed to trick all of us yet again by starting out strong and then going into his usual funk. Now, we have Gallardo clicking on all cylinders after choosing to go with the Marco Estrada special (high socks/Estrada’s pants), Marcum pitching like an ace save for his last start (which was still a W) and Narveson, who is pitching just like a five starter should be (if not better). All in all, I think things will continue to come together for the starting five. The bullpen is a different story.

Obviously, injuries have riddled just about every aspect of this squad, but the bullpen seems to be the unit that hasn't been able to handle it. It's sad when the pitcher you have the most faith in is LaTroy Hawkins. Yikes. To be fair, here is a list of the bullpen pitchers out with injury: Manny Parra, Takashi Saito, Zach Braddock, Brandon Kintzler. Without a doubt the two best lefties at Ron Roenicke's disposal aren't at his disposal and a few other pitchers who play a smaller role aren't there as well. Still, other guys are expected to either step in or hold their own and neither of those has been happening. Axford has been, dare I say, Turnbow-esk. The supposed setup man Kameron Loe (who apparently pitches every single game now) has been sketchy. Mitch Stetter, the only lefty available out of the pen, is about as unreliable as LeBron James during crunch time, but there has to be a left-hander in the bullpen. What I can’t understand is why guys like Marco Estrada and Sergio Mitre don’t get some crucial, late-game opportunities instead of Loe or even Axford once in awhile. I know it might sound a little drastic, but Ron can't keep sending out the same guys in the same situations night-in and night-out if they cause the entire Brewer fan base to hold their breaths. I believe that things will come together once we see Parra and Braddock return (couldn't care less about Saito and Kintzler...sorry) but Roenicke can't wait much longer to make some changes. Every game matters even though the season is 162 games long and you can only give guys so many chances until it's time to try something new. The bullpen rotation is nearing that time limit.

I know that might have been a lot to digest, but hopefully the read went down smooth. I'll be blogging much more frequently over the summer and into the next school year and I can only hope you're looking forward to it just as much as I am. There's one more thing I'd like to mention: the comment section. I don't just want to be the guy who rambles on and doesn't generate any conversation or make you think. I check this thing pretty regularly, so feel free to comment on anything that gets you going. I'll always be replying and it makes things more fun as well. I'm trying to get my name out there a little as I near the end of my college career so I'll try and bring in some more traffic to get things going. Bottom line is that interaction is fun and I'll do my best to make it happen here in the future.

Happy summer!