Newcomer Garza eager to lead Brewers

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By Tom Haudricourt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, March 2, 2014

PHOENIX--It’s not difficult to locate the epicenter of most of the buzz in the Milwaukee Brewers’ clubhouse at Maryvale Baseball Park this spring.

In the right-hand corner as you walk in, there’s usually something going on, courtesy of right-hander Matt Garza and his partner in crime, veteran righty Kyle Lohse. Though he is the newest Brewer, Garza is no wallflower. He likes to have fun when the time is appropriate and does not hesitate to agitate.

Lohse, a silent assassin in the world of pranking, has the adjacent locker to Garza, which was no mistake. Manager Ron Roenicke wanted his starting pitchers concentrated in one area of the clubhouse for the sake of camaraderie as well as proximity. And he figured Garza and Lohse would be leaders of that band.

“What I like about (Garza) is he really works hard but when it’s time to have fun you have fun,” said Roenicke. “I think that’s a great combination to have. When you need to bear down, you bear down.

“It’s really good to have personalities on a team. It’s good to have characters on a team, and he’s a guy that I think is going to really help us with his personality.”

There were only a few days remaining in spring training last year when Lohse signed a free-agent deal with the Brewers and therefore he didn’t have the usual six-week bonding experience with his new teammates. As the season evolved, he became more comfortable and exercised his leadership as well as proclivity for stealthily pulling jokes on the unsuspecting.

“Last year was just so weird,” said Lohse. “We had that terrible May and then injuries were hitting. It wasn’t like we had the same group of guys. We had parts moving here and there, so it wasn’t until too late that we kind of started getting better.

“We talked about it among the veteran guys. That’s also our job—make sure things don’t go that way. I wasn’t here last year at this time so I don’t know what was going on, but it’s a good thing to have right now to set the tone in spring training.”

Roenicke conceded it’s not as easy for starting pitchers to be clubhouse leaders because they play only once every five days. But veterans such as Garza and Lohse who are self-assured and outgoing can perform that role when a void exists.

“That’s our job,” said Lohse. “That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re going to have our down times but you try to minimize that and pick each other up. That’s how you win, having a strong staff that leads the team every night, one through five. That’s what it takes.

“I have experience, but it doesn’t mean I know everything. We were looking at the back of my baseball card and I was saying, ‘See? It’s not all good. There’s a lot of years where I struggled.’ I know now what it takes to be consistent with your mentality. That’s the big thing—between the ears, trying to get consistent with what you’re doing. It’s something I try to help them out with.”

There has been a leadership void in the Brewers clubhouse as the personnel changed somewhat with younger players filtering in. The contingent of Latin players also grew and that group tends to stick together because it’s easier to converse in their native tongue.

Prince Fielder and Corey Hart are gone. Rickie Weeks has battled through injuries and is more of a lead-by-example type anyway. Veteran third baseman Aramis Ramirez also is a walk-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick type. Ryan Braun was compromised by his link to performance-enhancing drugs and prior denials that forced teammates to answer for him until the final Biogenesis reckoning last season.

Leftfielder Khris Davis and second baseman Scooter Gennett are young players trying to get a permanent foot in the door in the big leagues. They have down-the-road leadership potential but must establish themselves first.

In terms of everyday players, catcher Jonathan Lucroy and centerfielder Carlos Gomez are probably the closest the Brewers have to clubhouse leaders. Lucroy has established himself as a solid individual and player, a no-nonsense type who plays the game right and isn’t afraid to step forward to answer media questions on nearly any topic. His position on the field supports a leadership role and he is respected by his teammates.

Gomez is more of a fun-loving, cut-up in the clubhouse but has emerged as a talented, improving player who is both bilingual and accountable. He can be a bit mercurial at times—just ask the Atlanta Braves—but is a player that younger Latin teammates are drawn to because of his outgoing nature.

A team never can have too many leaders. But it can have too few. The Brewers can use as many as are willing to step forward.

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