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Tom Oates: Encouraging signs suggest Brewers pitching staff may have weathered the early storm

May 6, 2019

MILWAUKEE — Poor Taylor Williams.

The right-hander pitches the final four innings and gets the win in the Milwaukee Brewers’ 18-inning staredown with the New York Mets on Saturday night at Miller Park and his reward is to be sent down the minor leagues Sunday morning.

At least Williams has company. Donnie Hart pitched three shutout innings when starter Chase Anderson was a last-minute scratch Wednesday and the Brewers sent him down the next day, too.

At first glance, this doesn’t look like the kind of positive reinforcement the struggling Brewers pitching staff needs. But a closer look shows the team’s decision-makers can’t afford to worry about the messages they’re sending right now. This isn’t about keeping everyone happy, it’s about survival.

With an ERA that ranked last in the National League going into Saturday’s game and a schedule that gave them a stretch of 13 games without a day off, the Brewers pitching staff, already stretched thin due to injuries and poor performance, has been the most disappointing area of the team. That Milwaukee has managed to keep its head above water in the NL Central Division is a testament to home runs and defense.

The shuttle between Milwaukee and Class AAA San Antonio has been operating non-stop as pitchers who still have minor-league options go back and forth so the Brewers always have enough available arms for that day’s game, especially in the bullpen. Anderson’s injury Wednesday and the 18-inning game Saturday taxed the bullpen to the limit.

“That’s going to cause roster turnover,” manager Craig Counsell said Sunday. “Taylor did a great job ... but he’s unable to pitch for the next couple of days and so you have to do it.”

Somehow, there is a ray of light at the end of the tunnel for the Brewers staff. Although two of the three young starters they elevated to the rotation pitched their way out of those jobs and injuries in the bullpen cost them Corey Knebel for good and Jeremy Jeffress for three weeks, Brewers pitchers were outstanding in a three-game sweep of the Mets that concluded with a 3-2 victory Sunday, a game in which Zach Davies, who opened the season as the No. 5 starter, established himself as the team’s ace.

OK, so the Mets offense isn’t exactly scary. Still, the Brewers’ 1.50 ERA in the series was a sign that both the rotation and bullpen are stabilizing.

“I’m glad we picked it back up,” Counsell said. “I really like how our bullpen is constituted right now. The bullpen is shaping up really nicely. Some guys are taking some steps forward. We’re in a good place and we did pitch very, very well this series. That was led by our guys taking the ball first. They did a heck of a job.”

If the pitchers keep this up, they might just validate management’s decision not to sign the two available big-ticket free agents — starter Dallas Keuchel and closer Craig Kimbrel — after the pitching stumbled out of gate. Both are in their 30s and asking for costly, long-term contracts, but the Brewers seem interested only if their price tags come down. Apparently, 29 other teams, some of them also in need of pitching, agree with the Brewers because it’s May and neither one has signed.

Davies said the encouraging signs from the pitching staff began prior to the Mets series. Public concern over the pitching reached a peak when Brewers gave up 11 runs in back-to-back losses to Colorado last week, but those games may have been the exception, not the rule.

“The last two times through the rotation was great,” Davies said. “Guys are attacking hitters, guys are doing well with getting through the lineup and looking right doing it. Guys are making their pitches and getting deeper into ballgames. We all knew that was going to happen at some point. We all knew that we were going to right the ship. But it’s nice the last couple weeks for that to turn around.”

At the risk of sounding too optimistic, there are signs that Davies is onto something.

Four of the five spots in the rotation have solidified with Davies, Jhoulys Chacin, young Brandon Woodruff and veteran Gio Gonzalez. Davies has been masterful, Woodruff has gotten better with each outing and Gonzalez has given the team two solid starts since he was signed. And, in the most optimistic sign of all, former ace Jimmy Nelson pitched in an actual game Sunday for the first time since he blew out his shoulder in 2017, going three-plus innings for San Antonio.

In the bullpen, roles are starting to get defined now that Jeffress has, in Counsell’s words, turned a corner after a shoulder injury robbed him of his velocity. Josh Hader, Matt Albers, Junior Guerra and Alex Claudio also have thrown well lately and young Corbin Burnes has been much better coming out of the bullpen than he was as a starter.

If the Brewers brass is responsible for anything involving the slow start, it is letting respected pitching coach Derek Johnson move on to Cincinnati without putting up much of a fight. With many of the same pitchers on both teams, the Brewers’ statistics are down and the Reds’ are up this season. But there’s no sense crying about that at this point. What’s done is done.

To be sure, there are still major concerns in both the rotation and the bullpen, but the worst may be over for the Brewers pitching staff.