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Axford talks pitching, elbow injuries, Tommy John surgery

April 17, 2012 Comments off

MILWAUKEE — Even as the workload of pitchers decreases, the injuries seem to be mounting with increasing frequency. Especially elbow injuries, and especially with closers.

That was the premise of a story written today by Tom Verducci for SI.com. As he sees it, the injury trends point to a need for rethinking the modern bullpen in which relievers — outside of a select group of long relief pitchers — are limited to single innings or at-bats in very specific situations.

Left-handed relievers often face strictly left-handed batters late in ballgames. Managers like Tony La Russa have no problem running out three different relievers for three batters in a single inning: right-hander to face righty at the plate, lefty versus lefty, and then back to the right side. Or vice versa.

The alarming thing is that while pitchers’ workloads are generally decreasing, the likelihood of injury seems to be on the rise. Just this week, Giants closer Brian Wilson went down with a season-ending elbow injury that will require his second Tommy John surgery.

Here are some of the statistics from Verducci’s story:

  • Sixty-six percent of 2011 Opening Day closers (20 of 30) are no longer closing for the same team 12 months later, with seven of them hurt.
  • Fifty percent of all starting pitchers will go on the DL every year, as well as 34 percent of all relievers, according to research by Stan Conte, director of medical services for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That bears repeating: half of all starting pitchers will break down this year. (“When I did the research,” Conte said, “I was so surprised I figured I must have done the math wrong.”)
  • Injuries last year cost clubs $487 million — or about $16 million per team. The bill since 2008 for players who can’t play is $1.9 billion.

As for guys like Wilson, going through the surgery a second time, 70 percent of relievers make it back while only one in 10 starters returns following a second operation and lengthy rehab.

A couple more stats from Verducci:

  • The past two seasons mark the first time since the save statistic became official in 1969 that nobody saved 25 games with 81 innings in back-to-back full seasons. Bailey, with the 2009 Athletics, is the only closer to do so in the past four years.
  • Over the previous five seasons, 53 closers saved 25 games at least once. Thirty-three of them, or 62 percent, no longer are closing.
  • Only five pitchers saved 25 games three times in the past five years and are still closing: Jose Valverde, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell and Joe Nathan

With all that in mind, I talked this afternoon with Brewers closer John Axford about the story and the injury trends, to assess his feelings and level of concern about the likelihood of injury and seemingly short lifespan of pitchers in his role.

Here’s what he had to say:

Do the injury trends worry you at all?

“No, not particularly. As far as injuries go, that happens to anybody, whether you’re a starter or reliever. I don’t think it matters whether you’re specified as a closer or not. As a pitcher in general I think you’re more susceptible to injury than a position player.”

“It’s nothing I think about every single day, that’s for sure.”

Do you ever think at all about the fact that as a closer you’re likely to have a short lifespan in the role?

“Some people do, some people don’t. It just depends on the trend and the people that they want to look at. Once again, it’s not something I really look at and think about too much.”

Did you ever talk to Trevor Hoffman about how he was able to last in the role so successfully for such a long time?

“Really, just his work ethic. Just watching him work day in and day out, you could just tell his determination and dedication every single day. I think that’s really what it takes.”

“Obviously for Trevor, too, it was a matter of San Diego. Him wanting to be there, taking an opportunity when he had it, and obviously the team wanting him to be there also. So if I’m given the opportunity to stay in Milwaukee, I obviously would love to do that. I think you have a better chance of staying with that same club than testing free agency and popping out everywhere as a closer. That doesn’t seem to go over quite as well. Unless you’re Papelbon, I guess.”

Would the likelihood of injuries make you more likely to want to sign early if offered an extension?

“I know how hard I work, I know the effort I put in every single day. I know my body and I know what it’s capable of. Same with the team. They’re pretty trustworthy and they’re pretty open to both sides. If I tell them I can’t pitch on a particular day, they know they won’t put me in. Even if I say I’m OK, sometimes Ron [Roenicke]’s going to say, ‘No, we’re going to give you a day off.’ If it’s early in the season, obviously, why not give a guy a break when he needs a break? And Ron and Kranny [pitching coach Rick Kranitz], they’re great about that. They’re great about making sure that the relievers and everybody has the time that they need.”

“So I don’t think I’m going to get overworked, and I know how hard I work. So I don’t feel like an ‘injury waiting to happen’ by any means.”

Another thing mentioned in the story is the setup of the bullpen and closers being limited to late-inning save situations, if it were up to you would you stick with that or pitch whenever high-leverage situations came up? Fifth-inning, sixth inning?

“I don’t really know. Maybe not that early. I think my mentality’s kind of made up now towards the end of the ballgame. I really enjoy that role. Obviously in 2010, I was in there in the eighth inning at times for some saves. So I got some two-inning saves, some four- and five-out saves. Those opportunities I think really kept me focused out there as well. Having the bullpen we have now, though, everything is really role-oriented… so there isn’t much that you need to do to deviate from that.”

Can you compare your arm now to what it was like before Tommy John surgery?

“The way the doctor described it was, it was a few pieces of string that’s now become a noose rope. I had what many people do not, which is a lack of a tendon in my wrist. So they used my hamstring. So it was thicker and stronger, and they looped it through four times. Generally it used to be two, then they started switching to three. They could do four really easily with me because I had such a prominent elbow bone, my bone sticks out prominently enough, so they looped it through four times. That’s why it sticks out even more now, unlike [the other] side, which just goes straight.”

“He said, as long as I continue to pitch in baseball and work the way you normally would and work hard,  I should never have another elbow problem again. And I haven’t. It’s been unbelievably strong since. Obviously it took a little longer to come back than I wanted because I was trying to figure out my arm path again. … But as far as the elbow is concerned, I’ve never had a problem with it since.”

Do you think there should be any concern in baseball in general about the increase in injuries despite the decrease in workload?

“Not to attack anyone’s work ethic, but it could be just a matter of how people are going about their work. If you’re doing a little too much throughout the year, that could affect it. If you’re not doing enough throughout the year, that could affect it. So many little things could affect an injury. Something small, something big.”

“The elbow is such a tough thing. Throwing a baseball is the most unnatural thing you can do in sports, other than serving a tennis ball. So it’s going to put a lot of strain on your elbow. You just have to take care of it. Certainly you have to understand and know of your body. If you’re putting too much strain on it outside of your throwing program and outside of the games, then obviously that’s not going to be good. But if you’re not doing enough to maintain your shoulder work and elbow work, then you’re going to hurt it then too.”

How well do you know BrianWilson and what did you think when you heard he would be having a second Tommy John surgery?

“We played together when I was in the Cape in 2002. But that was  the only time I ever met him. And that was just before he had his first Tommy John, and just before I had my first Tommy John.”

“It’s concerning because he had his in 2003 and that’s when I had mine too. So it’s interesting to think about. Obviously I don’t want to think about it too much because it’s the same timeframe for both of us. But it’s a tough break for him, tough break for the Giants.”

Easter Sunday: 25 years later

April 8, 2012 Comments off

Easter Sunday is a special day for Brewers fans. And not just because of the feast and festivities that come along with the Christian holiday.

One of the most memorable games in Brewers history was 25 years ago on Easter Sunday, as home runs by Rob Deer and Dale Sveum on April 19, 1987, carried the Brewers to a 6-4 victory. More importantly, it extended Milwaukee’s season-opening win streak to 12 games.

A week later, that streak landed Deer and the Brewers on the cover of Sports Illustrated:

 

Looking back on that game today, I searched the newspaper archives from that Easter Monday.

Here are some screenshots of the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel coverage:

 

And here’s something I wrote about the game two years ago for MLB.com:

To open what turned out to be a wild and wacky season, the Brewers tied a Major League record, winning its first 13 games of the year. One month later, the club lost 12 in a row.

But the 13-game stretch to open the season is among many Brewers fans’ favorite memories. Along the way, two highlights stand out.

First, in the team’s ninth game of the season, lefty Juan Nieves tossed the first no-hitter in franchise history, blanking the Orioles on April 15, 1987, at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.

Nieves became the first Puerto Rican-born pitcher to toss a no-hitter, but he couldn’t do it without a little help from Yount, who made a tremendous no-hitter-saving catch in center field for the 27th and final out.

“There’s no way I wasn’t going to catch that ball,” Yount said. “When I saw it, I just took off running. There’s no time to think in that kind of situation. So I just reacted and luckily I got there and was able to be part of the Brewers’ only no-hitter.”

Three days later, the current Brewers hitting coach delivered the most famous home run in Brewers history, on Easter Sunday no less.

With the winning streak on the line, the Brewers headed to the ninth down, 4-1. At that point, the might have Brewers thought it was over, as did their fans. With that in mind, the crowd of 29,357 gave a standing ovation in appreciation for the 11-game win streak.

But it was far from over.

With two on and one out, slugger Rob Deer crushed a 1-0 curveball out to left, tying the game at 4-4. Rookie B.J. Surhoff followed Deer with a strikeout, but after a walk was drawn by Gantner, the switch-hitting Dale Sveum had a chance to make it 12 in a row.

He did just that.

With a full count, Sveum got a cut fastball, waist-high over the middle of the plate. Sveum jumped on it and blasted a two-run walk-off homer, sending County Stadium into a frenzy, as the Brewers had won their 12th straight to start the season.

“It was one of those games where nobody really wanted to leave,” said Brewers infielder Craig Counsell, a Wisconsin native who stood in the stands that day as a 16-year-old. “If you were there, you’d remember it.”

 

So, for those of you old enough (I was not born for another 10 months), what do you remember about that day, that game and those home runs?

Hart powers Crew past Cards; Greinke brilliant in 2012 debut

April 7, 2012 Comments off

Corey Hart's second-inning home run was estimated at 447 feet, landing at about this spot.

 

MILWAUKEE — So much for easing Corey Hart into the regular season.

After a knee injury in Spring Training required surgery, it was unclear whether Hart would be ready to go on Opening Day for the second year in a row.

Through two games, Hart appears to be in midseason form.

Following a 1-for-2 performance Friday, Hart blasted two no-doubt home runs Saturday as the Brewers picked up their first win of the season, 6-0, over the Cardinals.

“I think it was big for us to come back today and show that we’re still a good team,” Hart said. “I think we did that.”

Hart’s first homer went deep into the second deck in left, while the second was a two-run shot to center field. Between the two, Hart had an estimated 860 feet worth of home runs on the day.

Not bad for a guy with a knee that is not yet at 100 percent.

“He’s really seeing the ball well,” said manager Ron Roenicke. “Hopefully he’ll come in tomorrow feeling well and we can get him back in there.”

Rickie Weeks also homered in the game, while Aramis Ramirez had a key RBI double in the sixth inning for his first hit in a Brewers uniform. Add in a 2-for-3 day by Ryan Braun — with a pair of doubles, a walk and a run scored — and the Crew showed just how good the offense could be this year, even without Prince Fielder batting cleanup.

All they really needed Saturday was the one run, which Hart provided with his second-inning blast that nearly went over Bernie Brewer’s slide beyond the left field bleachers. That’s because Zack Greinke delivered one of his best outings since coming to Milwaukee last offseason.

Greinke had everything working in his 2012 debut, facing the minimum through 4 1/3 innings. Had it not been for three singles in the fifth and sixth innings — two of which were nearly outs — Greinke may have been on his way to a complete game. Instead, he turned in a stellar seven frames, giving up just four hits and striking out seven batters without a walk.

After starting the season without both Hart and Greinke a year ago, the Brewers already are enjoying what each of them brings to the table just two games in. Full seasons out of both All-Stars could go a long way toward making up for the lost production of Fielder.

“It makes a difference,” Roenicke said. “Last year, we didn’t have those two guys together for quite a while.”

Twins turn tables, rally past Brewers late

July 3, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — Matt Capps is still the Twins’ closer. But lefty Glen Perkins showed Sunday that he too could close out a ballgame, and with authority.

After watching Capps put two on with one out, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire called on Perkins to face left-handed slugger Prince Fielder. Perkins struck out Fielder and Casey McGehee to secure the 9-7 victory.

Facing the All-Star first baseman in a big situation, Perkins retired Fielder on three pitches, getting him to chase a slider for the second out of the inning. Then, after McGehee fouled off two fastballs and Perkins missed with two sliders out of the zone, he got the slumping third baseman to swing over a slider down and in to end the game.

McGehee snapped his bat over his knee before walking back to the dugout as the Twins celebrated the thrilling come-from-behind victory.

“That was a really hard situation; Cappy has good numbers [against Fielder], he let me know that on the mound,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve got to win baseball games, and I just thought that was a better matchup at the time.

“I think Perkins has a hot hand, and I wanted to win the ballgame, so I went to Perkins.”

Perkins has been dominan all season, giving up just seven runs (six earned) over 30 innings for a 1.80 ERA. Lefties are hitting just .209 off Perkins with 10 strikeouts in 43 at-bats.

The biggest key to Perkins’ success has been the use of his slider, which is tough on both lefties and righties, as he showed Sunday in getting Fielder and McGehee to swing and miss at it. Being able to touch 96 mph with his fastball doesn’t hurt, either.

“I’m just kind of putting it where I want for the most part,” Perkins said. “That’s a good pitch to have if I can run fastballs up there and get them off that and then throw the slider, it’s got to be tough as a hitter.”

With Perkins picking up his first career save, the Twins put together a comeback of their own Sunday against the Brewers after watching a seven-run lead slip away a night earlier.

They didn’t trail by as many runs as the Brewers did the night before, and the Twins did not wait until the ninth, but Minnesota returned the favor, handing Milwaukee a tough loss.

With their comeback, Minnesota got starter Nick Blackburn off the hook after he had a second straight rough outing, giving up six runs in just four innings.

Blackburn retired the first six Brewers in order, but all three outs in the second were hard-hit line drives. Mark Kotsay broke through for Milwaukee in the third with a 442-foot solo blast into the second deck in right field.

Milwaukee batted around in the fourth, scoring five runs on five hits, including a two-run triple by Kotsay.

Including the eight runs (seven earned) allowed on 13 hits over 4 1/3 innings Monday against the Dodgers, Blackburn has gone 0-1 with a 14.05 ERA in his last two starts, allowing 13 earned runs allowed on 19 hits in just 8 1/3 innings.

“I kind of over-adjusted from my last outing,” Blackburn said. “I struggled in it, and went out and tried to do a little too much today. We’ll just try to tune it back down a little bit and hopefully get back on track.”

After falling behind, 6-1, through four innings, the Twins’ comeback started in the fourth with a three-run home run by left fielder Rene Tosoni.

Brewers starter Zack Greinke was particularly frustrated by that pitch to Tosoni, a fastball up and away that was supposed to be buried inside.

“That pitch and the pitch to [Michael] Cuddyer before, those were the two big mistakes of the game,” Greinke said. “Other than that, I pitched real well. Those two were real bad. I don’t know that hitter [Tosoni], but that’s not a good pitch to anyone. … I don’t know why I made a pitch that bad when there’s two guys on base. I don’t get it.”

Greinke allowed five runs (four earned) on five hits over six innings with nine strikeouts and two walks. It was the sixth time in 12 starts this season he had allowed four or more earned runs, and the eighth start in which he gave up at least one home run.

With two out in the seventh, the Twins continued their rally as Joe Mauer and Cuddyer hit back-to-back singles, with the latter driving in Ben Revere from second base. Jim Thome, who earlier hit career home run No. 595, then walked to load the bases.

Third baseman Danny Valencia ripped a single to left, which was misplayed by Kotsay, allowing all three runs to score and Valencia to slide in safely at third as the Twins went from down five to the eventual two-run victory.

“It was unfortunate,” Kotsay said. “If I had come up with the ball, I thought we would have had a play at the plate with Cuddyer.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Fielder wants Kemp on NL’s Derby squad

July 3, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — Brewers All-Star slugger Prince Fielder is taking his job as National League captain for the State Farm Home Run Derby seriously, and so far, he has settled on just one of his three picks.

That pick is one of three NL starters in the outfield, but it’s not Brewers teammate Ryan Braun. Fielder wants Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp on his team.

“He’s guaranteed, I think,” Fielder said. “Yeah, he’s a guarantee, Kemp, if he wants to.”

Fielder said he had not talked to Kemp as of Sunday morning. But he has communicated with him through a mutual friend, Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn, a former Brewers teammate of Fielder’s.

Kemp, who entered Sunday leading the NL with 22 home runs, had indicated to reporters that he would be excited for the opportunity to swing for the fences in the Derby.

“I’m pretty sure if [Fielder] picks me, I’m in it,” said Kemp. “As a kid, everybody dreams of going up against the biggest home-run hitters in baseball. I remember seeing Frank Thomas in it and it’s been one of my dreams, definitely, if I get the chance to be in it.”

 

The Cardinals’ two All-Star outfielders, Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday, expressed interest Sunday in the Derby as well, and would bring plenty of experience to the NL squad. Berkman has been in the Derby four times, in 2002, ’04, ’06 and ’08. Holliday participated in ’07 and ’10.

“It would be hard to turn down an invitation,” Berkman said. “That would be tough to say no.”

All three Reds All-Stars also said they would be open to joining Fielder in the Derby.

“If they ask me to do it, I’ll probably do it,” said Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. “I know the Reds probably don’t want me to do it. I feel like I could put a show on for the fans.”

As for Fielder’s teammates, Braun said before Sunday’s series finale against the Twins that he was officially out.

“Oh yeah, I’m out for sure,” Braun said. “I was leaning toward not doing it, but I’m definitely not doing it now.”

Something that may have added to Braun’s decision to not participate this year is the opportunity for another Brewers All-Star to take part in the Derby.

Second baseman Rickie Weeks, one of three Brewers starters in the All-Star Game along with Fielder and Braun, could be the fourth Milwaukee slugger to give the Derby a shot in the last five years. Fielder made his first appearance in 2007, Braun did it in ’08 in New York, Fielder won the ’09 contest in St. Louis, and right fielder Corey Hart participated last season in Anaheim.

So will Fielder add Weeks’ name to his lineup?

“Yeah, I think so,” Fielder said. “But I can’t let it out. I’ve got to narrow it down. He’s in my pool, so I don’t know yet.

“I can only pick a couple of my friends. Only my friends that hit the ball far.”

Weeks certainly fits that description, as Milwaukee’s leadoff hitter has 15 home runs, including a solo shot in Sunday’s game — seven back of Kemp, the NL leader — and is second among NL second basemen.

Of those 15 homers, Weeks has eight over 400 feet, including a 434-foot blast last month over the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field and onto Waveland Ave.

Can Weeks’ name be penciled in for the Derby?

“I don’t know, I’ve got to be asked,” said Weeks, who was then asked if he would agree to participate if asked. “Oh yeah, I’ll say yes.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Twins fall as big lead evaporates late

July 2, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — It had been nearly a month since Matt Capps blew a save. Since that June 8 outing, the Twins’ closer had thrown six straight scoreless innings and converted five saves in a row.

The Brewers finally got the best of Capps on Saturday, though, as they rallied for an 8-7 victory at Target Field.

“That was pretty tough, that was embarrassing,” Capps said.

“It’s not the first tough night I’ve had. [But] it might be the worst night I’ve had that I can remember in my career.”

Called upon to close it out with the Twins leading the Brewers by three runs, Capps gave up three straight singles before getting the next two outs. With two on and two out, all Capps had to do was get Nyjer Morgan out to end the game.

Having played with Morgan for three years, Capps knew just how to pitch the Brewers’ center fielder, too. In fact, he had gotten him out in a similar situation in the past.

In 2009, Capps faced Morgan with two on and two out, as the Pirates held a 5-4 lead on the Nationals. That time, Capps got Morgan to pop out to center field to secure the victory.

This time, Morgan drove a double off the wall in right field, plating two runs to tie the ballgame.

“Go for them seats,” Morgan said of his approach, before fitting in a mention of his alter ego, Tony Plush. “In that situation, with Plush facing one of my former teammates in Matt Capps, I know he’s going to come after me. He [threw] a nice pitch, and I happened to get it with the sweet spot of the bat. I thought I put it in them seats. I should have kept running to third. I was caught in the moment, there. But now I know for next time, I’ll keep running for third.”

Morgan crushed a 94-mph, first-pitch fastball just over the outstretched glove of Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer, completing a 3-for-4 night. Along with the double, Morgan had a two-run homer and a triple, with four RBIs and three runs scored.

“I felt like I had a bead on it,” Cuddyer said. “It felt close.”

Finally, pinch-hitter George Kottaras delivered the knockout punch to Capps, ripping a single to right-center to give the Brewers the lead and Capps his sixth blown save of the season.

Kottaras’ single completed the Brewers’ comeback from a 7-0 deficit in the fourth. The seven-run lead is tied for the fourth-largest blown lead in Minnesota history, and the last time the Twins had blown a seven-run lead was June 10, 2001, against the Pirates, when they led 8-1 and eventually lost 11-8.

“Definitely, the biggest win of the year,” said Ryan Braun, who exited with a left calf strain in the eighth, setting up Kottaras for the go-ahead single. “Considering the way that we have been playing and the way the game was going, down 7-0. We tried to chip away and put ourselves in position to come back and win that game. It’s unbelievable.”

After he kept them guessing last week at Miller Park, the Twins had jumped all over Brewers lefty Chris Narveson early. Alexi Casilla got things started with a single and a run scored in the first inning, but Narveson really struggled in the third and fourth.

With one down, Cuddyer and Danny Valencia hit back-to-back home runs in the third, the first Twins to do so since Sept. 25, 2010, at Detroit. An inning later, Narveson got two quick groundouts before he ran into trouble, as the Twins plated four runs with two out in the fourth.

“We knew what we were facing, we just faced him last week,” Cuddyer said. “Half changeups, half heaters. That at-bat that I hit the home run, I was looking for the changeup. I got it and, fortunately, I didn’t miss it.”

Narveson left after 4 2/3 innings, having given up seven runs on 14 hits with two walks and just one strikeout. The last pitcher to allow that many hits in less than five innings was Mark Buehrle, who gave up 14 hits in 4 1/3 innings on Aug. 2, 2008, at Kansas City.

Twins starter Carl Pavano faced just one over the minimum through four scoreless innings, and gave up four runs (three earned) on eight hits in 7 2/3 innings of work on the night.

“It’s tough. Matty is so solid. It’s just one of those things where it got away,” Pavano said. “Those guys battled back. You have to tip your cap at them.”

After giving up 15 runs on 25 hits earlier in the week to the Dodgers, the Twins looked to be on their way to a similar performance through four innings, with seven runs and 14 hits on the board.

Instead, the Brewers’ bullpen came in and shut them down, tossing 4 1/3 scoreless innings without giving up a hit.

“Very tough loss for us,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Any time you get the ball in your closer’s hand and you lose, it’s really hard. Capps got the ball out and over the plate a few too many times.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.