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April 23, 2013

What You Need to Know

A Hot Cup of Brew Crew

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
It’s hard to believe, after the Brewers’ 7-1 win over the Padres last night, that Ron Roenicke’s team was once 2-8. Hard to believe, because before Milwaukee’s recent surge, no team that lost eight of its first 10 games had ever bounced back to win at least its next seven. Now the Brewers are 10-8, riding on the longest active winning streak in the majors and the franchise’s best run since August 2008.

The keys to Milwaukee’s sudden success? Improved starting pitching, ninth-inning stability, and the red-hot bat currently wielded by center fielder Carlos Gomez, none of which were present during its 2-8 start.

Through the first six games of the season, of which the Brewers lost five, their starting pitchers combined for just one quality start and coughed up 22 earned runs over 32 1/3 innings of work. Since then, Milwaukee’s rotation ERA is a robust 3.76, a mark that—had they maintained it from day one—would place 12th in the majors instead of in the bottom third. Kyle Lohse, who turned in five innings of one-run ball before departing last night’s game with a dislocated pinky, was well on his way to a fourth consecutive quality start, but the Brewers failed to take advantage of his first two.

After Lohse’s 2-0, tough-luck loss to the Cardinals on April 12, the first of two consecutive blankings at Busch Stadium, Gomez’s triple-slash line for the season stood at .162/.162/.216, highlighting an unsightly slump that compounded other early lulls, such as Jonathan Lucroy’s (424 OPS on April 12) and Rickie Weeks’ (still ongoing, 4-for-50 since April 6). Lucroy has since bounced back and served as the cleanup hitter in Roenicke’s lineup on Thursday, but the turnaround produced by Gomez has been among the sharpest across all teams in the early going.

The 27-year-old earned National League Player of the Week accolades last week for a 9-for-18 showing with two home runs, during which he displayed the tools that led general manager Doug Melvin to extend him a three-year, $24 million commitment this past offseason. Gomez followed up that effort by reaching base three times on Monday, none of them via hit (two walks, one hit by pitch), and barely missing a home run on a ball that sailed just foul. The two free passes were his first of the season and marked his first multi-walk game since June 15, 2012.

The six-run margin enabled Roenicke to stay away from current closer Jim Henderson on Monday night, giving the right-hander, who has pitched in five of the Brewers’ eight consecutive wins, a breather. Henderson, who took over for his scuffling fellow Canadian John Axford on April 8, is 4-for-4 in his save opportunities and has amassed a 12-to-1 K:BB over nine innings of work. Axford, meanwhile, has thrived in his new set-up role, tossing 4 1/3 scoreless frames with five strikeouts and zero walks after giving up nine runs in his first 3 1/3 innings of the season.

Roenicke will hand the ball to Yovani Gallardo on Tuesday in search of a ninth consecutive win, which would bring them to within one win of the team’s longest surge in nearly a decade. Gallardo shook off a DUI arrest to hold the Giants to one run over six innings and smack his first home run of the season on April 18. The 27-year-old has notched 24 strikeouts in 19 career innings at Petco Park, and he’ll take on Clayton Richard, whose scheduled Saturday assignment was pushed back due to a bout with the flu. Gomez is 5-for-9 with a double and a homer in his past encounters with Richard (10:10 p.m. ET).

Matchup of the Day
Looking for the hottest hitter in baseball over the past week? Well, look no further than David Wright, who is 7-for-20 with two triples, two homers, and seven walks since the first game of the Mets’ doubleheader at Coors Field on April 16, a span during which he has not gone down on strikes. The recent surge has raised Wright’s OPS by more than 400 points since April 10, to 1.005 from 697, but the third baseman will need to solve Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw in order to maintain its ascent though tonight’s game.

Kershaw scuffled in his most recent outing—a 5 1/3-inning, five-run drubbing at the hands of the Padres—serving up three home runs for the first time since May 2, 2012, and only the second time in his big-league career. He has, however, been able to stymie Wright in their past encounters, holding him to two hits (one double) in 12 at-bats while issuing three walks and fanning him twice.

The 25-year-old southpaw has essentially been a three-offering pitcher against opposite-handed batters throughout his career, but while he has leaned more heavily on his slider versus righties in general, Wright—as you can see on the afore-linked matchup page—has actually seen considerably more curveballs (27 percent compared to eight percent sliders). Kershaw has begun nine of their last 10 encounters with a fastball, before turning to the bender for the second pitch in four of the seven plate appearances that began with a heater and did not end on the opening delivery.

Wright, at least on left-handed fastballs, is a significantly better hitter on pitches in the lower two-thirds of the zone. Kershaw, by contrast, tends to work the letters more than he does the knees, a disparity that may account for some of his success in their head-to-head showdowns. Wright’s lone extra-base hit against Kershaw, a double on July 25, 2010, came on a knee-high four-seamer, the fifth fastball in a six-pitch at-bat.

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • After a shaky Royals debut, Wade Davis has pitched well in his last two starts, beginning to answer the lingering questions about his ability to stick in a major-league rotation. The 27-year-old right-hander tossed seven shutout innings, scattering five hits, striking out seven, and walking none, to halt the Braves’ 10-game winning streak in his most recent outing. Tonight, manager Ned Yost will give Davis the ball against the Tigers and Max Scherzer, who has fanned 23 total batters in his last two starts, delivering his first back-to-back games with double-digit strikeouts since May 21-26, 2009. Scherzer has never fanned 10-plus hitters in three consecutive starts, and since the Royals’ season total of 112 is the second-lowest in the league, he’ll find it challenging to accomplish the feat for the first time tonight (7:08 p.m. ET).
  • Speaking of strikeouts, Reds lefty Tony Cingrani, who notched 26 of them in 14 1/3 innings for Triple-A Louisville before his promotion last week, continued his whiffing ways in his major-league debut, recording eight punchouts in five innings versus the Marlins. The 23-year-old Rice University product thrives on deception, and he has an excellent opportunity to pad his early stat line against the Cubs, whose aggregate triple-slash line against left-handed pitching this season is just .200/.270/.317. The visitors will counter with Carlos Villanueva, who has allowed only three runs over 21 innings, all of them on solo homers. The 29-year-old’s 100 percent strand rate and .189 BABIP are surefire signs of impending regression (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Rays went 21-10 in the 31 games started by David Price last year, but so far this season, they have been dealt a loss in each of the lefty’s first four trips to the mound. Price, who has coughed up five homers in 23 innings after permitting only 16 in 211 frames in 2012, shoulders a good deal of the blame for the winless lull, but manager Joe Maddon’s offense has been held to just 11 total runs in those four games, too. In order to get off the schneid, Price will need to continue his recent success against the Yankees, which includes a 3-1 ledger and a 3.06 ERA over five starts last season. Robinson Cano, who owns an 11-for-47 career line versus Price, is the only active member of Joe Girardi’s lineup that can boast a home run off of the 2011 American League Cy Young Award winner, who takes on Phil Hughes in the middle match at Tropicana Field (7:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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