Mike Fiers, Jimmy Nelson fill void
It is a rare baseball season when a team makes it to the finish line having used only five starting pitchers.
The Milwaukee Brewers felt good about their starting rotation at the outset of the 2014 season, but it was inevitable that others would enter the picture. Marco Estrada pitched his way to the bullpen at midseason by being unable to keep the ball in the park, and Matt Garza later found his way onto the disabled list with an oblique strain.
Thanks to Jimmy Nelson and Mike Fiers, those two developments were mere blips on the radar screen for the first-place Brewers. Nelson has yet to find the same groove that made him the best pitcher in the Pacific Coast League this season but has held his own with a 2-3 record and 3.86 earned run average in seven starts, including one earlier in the season in Miami.
In his first two starts filling in for Garza, Fiers was nothing short of magnificent. He out-pitched Los Angeles’ Zack Greinke the first time out by allowing only three hits and one run over eight innings, and followed that with six shutout innings against the Cubs in Chicago during which he struck out an amazing 14 hitters.
“What can you say? He has been dominating,” said pitching coach Rick Kranitz. “I don’t know if I’ve had a guy come up and do that. I had (Anibal) Sanchez come up and throw a no-hitter one year in Florida.
“I don’t care what league you’re in. Fourteen strikeouts is pretty good.”
Fiers became only the eighth pitcher since 1900 to strike out at least 14 hitters while pitching no more than six innings. Names on that list included the likes of Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Kerry Wood and Max Scherzer.
“That’s pretty cool to be mentioned with those guys, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan,” said Fiers. “That speaks for itself. Those guys are Hall of Fame pitchers. But that was one day for me. I’ve got a long way to go to fill their shoes. I’m willing to take that road if it presents itself.”
How many more starts Fiers gets before Garza returns remains to be seen. But after Fiers’ first two outings, the Brewers no longer fear that Garza’s injury will derail their season-long quest to win the National League Central title.
“Just to contribute to a first-place team is awesome,” said Fiers. “It’s just great. It’s where I want to be and where I want to stay. Pitching like that is definitely helpful for me to stay up here.
“I’m just taking the ball every time they give it to me and just trying to make the best of it.”
There was no guarantee that Fiers would get another chance in the Brewers’ rotation after quickly pitching his way to the minors last season. He was pummeled in three starts (0-3, 12.66 ERA) and sent back to Class AAA Nashville, where he later suffered a broken arm when struck by a liner.
The 29-year-old right-hander returned to Nashville this year and pitched as he did as a rookie sensation for three months in 2012 (8-6, 2.88 in his first 16 starts). Beyond posting an 8-5 record and 2.55 ERA in 17 starts for the Sounds, Fiers compiled 129 strikeouts in 102 1/3 innings with only 17 walks, an amazing ratio.
In the game in Chicago, it seemed as if Fiers could strike out hitters at will, though the free-swinging and relatively inexperienced Cubs played right into his hands for the most part.
“It’s just the confidence, throwing a lot more strikes, having command of all four of my pitches and throwing them at any time in the count,” said Fiers, who saw action in relief with the Brewers earlier this season.
“I haven’t changed anything about my game. The only thing I’ve done is attack hitters more than I did last year in the couple months I was up here. I don’t know what I was doing before, why I wasn’t attacking guys and being more aggressive like I am now.
“It was something I picked up and started going after guys a lot more and trusting myself.”
Fiers has been more aggressive but also more consistent with his location. When catcher Jonathan Lucroy stuck out his mitt at Wrigley Field, Fiers inevitably put the ball right in it without Lucroy so much as flinching.
“He’s just throwing more strikes,” said Lucroy. “He’s locating the ball a lot better. From what I’ve seen, he has been a lot better as far as location and execution.
“I’d say 95 percent of the pitches we made the other day were on purpose. They were where we wanted them. So it’s execution.”
The ride hasn’t been as smooth for Nelson, who has been matched up against aces of contending teams with little room for error. He responded with five consecutive quality starts (at least six innings, no more than three earned runs), including a solid six-inning performance (six hits, two runs) Friday night in Los Angeles, allowing the Brewers to rally late for a 6-3 victory that ignited a three-game sweep.
Nelson, 25, was voted by opposing managers as having the best slider in the PCL and at times has flashed that devilish breaking pitch but is still looking to harness it more consistently.
“He’s still a work in progress just because he still ‘cement mixes’ that slider sometimes,” said first baseman Lyle Overbay, using the baseball euphemism for a breaking ball that spins slow and flat to the plate.
“It’s nasty, but once he starts getting ahold of that and doing what he was doing in the minor leagues, he’s going to get even better. That’s scary.”
With Kyle Lohse being skipped in the rotation while recovering from an ankle sprain, Fiers and Nelson will be front and center for the Brewers’ two-game interleague series against Toronto that starts tonight at Miller Park. Fiers starts the first game and Nelson the second.
Considering how sloppy things could have gotten during the Estrada/Garza/Lohse transitional period, Roenicke has no complaints about the work being done by Fiers and Nelson.
“They’ve been really good,” said Roenicke. “Fiers has been outstanding, and for bringing a guy up this quickly, to pitch like (Nelson) has, he’s done a real nice job for us.
“You know you’re going to need more than five starting pitchers. That’s just the way it is. We thought we had good depth when the season started and we’ve needed it. We wouldn’t be where we are without it.”