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A chance to start to straighten out: Villanueva’s spring has been inconsistent

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Gazette wire services
March 19, 2009
— Carlos Villanueva understands.

He is smart enough and enough of a realist to know his inconsistent spring—0-1 with an 8.64 earned run average with eight runs and 13 hits allowed in 8 1/3 innings—has left serious doubt in the mind of new Milwaukee Brewers manager Ken Macha, who had planned to start the season with the right-hander as the set-up guy for closer Trevor Hoffman.


Because of those struggles, Macha and pitching coach Billy Castro are giving Villanueva a start Sunday against the San Francisco Giants, the club that traded Villanueva to Milwaukee in 2004. The hope is he can build up his arm, sharpen his curveball and changeup and more closely prepare for his outing like a starter, since Villanueva has started every other spring before this one.


“It was my suggestion before to try to get him long,” Macha said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get three innings out of him, get some good work out of him and then get back to the one-inning thing.”


Sunday would be Jeff Suppan’s day to pitch, so he’ll throw in a minor-league game that day, allowing Villanueva to pitch the “A” game.


Villanueva threw 37 pitches in 1 1/3 innings, allowed a three-run inside-the-park home run in the eighth inning and a walk-off bomb in the ninth, allowing five runs on five hits Tuesday against the Giants.


That prompted Macha to say “Villanueva has had one good outing all spring as far as I’m concerned” before adding that the time to look at other set-up options is getting close. Macha also said Villanueva would get some slack because he had proven he can get major-league hitters out.


Villanueva doesn’t blame his manager for his concerns.


“I understand the nervousness they might have,” said Villanueva, who pitched 59 1/3 innings with a 2.12 ERA out of the bullpen last season. “It’s spring. I’m still working on some stuff. I know Ken is new to the team and he wants to get the best team he can to give us a chance to win. I understand that concern.”


Macha is still giving Villanueva every opportunity to keep the role and recognizes Villanueva’s previous season preparations have come as a starter, which can be a completely different training program from a reliever’s.


“It’s definitely been a different spring for me,” Villanueva said. “I’ve been used to coming into every spring and starting games. I’m a guy that pitches with scouting reports and all that to my advantage. When I get in in the eighth inning or ninth inning, I don’t know any of the guys playing.


”It’s no excuse. I have to execute my pitches.“


Villanueva’s best outing this spring was a two-inning, no-hit performance last Thursday. He started Tuesday’s eighth inning with a 10-pitch at-bat and has had a couple other double-digit-pitch duels this spring.


Those lengthy battles can fatigue a pitcher and lead to fat pitches and ugly stat lines. Macha said he would start checking the radar guns on Villanueva’s fastball, but more than losing velocity, pitchers lose location because their arm or legs get tired in those long at-bats.


Villanueva has gone into most of his outings this spring working on pitches or mechanics and not focused on getting a hitter out as fast as he can, which is another reason for his inability to finish hitters. He said that approach might have to change so he can show Macha he is still capable of retiring hitters consistently.


”It comes down to I have to execute and show that I can do it,“ Villanueva said. ”It’s a business. I understand that. It’s what we do.


“Some days I come in and my pitches are finishing good. Then the next time they are lazy. It’s not like I don’t think about it, but I’m not worried about it.”


Gallardo shines

At Tucson, Ariz., The loss of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets to free agency might be a little less painful for Milwaukee with the way Yovani Gallardo is pitching this spring.


The 23-year-old right-hander held Arizona hitless through five innings Wednesday in the Brewers’ 4-1 victory over the Diamondbacks.


Arizona managed just one hit the entire game.


Gallardo, who missed virtually all of last season with knee injuries, faced only 16 batters, one more than the minimum. He struck out three and walked three. Two of the base runners were erased, one on a rundown and the other on a double play.


“It felt great. I think all my pitches were working for me,” Gallardo said. “I was able to mix and match every pitch and get ahead of the hitters.”


Arizona’s Doug Davis cruised in his return to the mound after missing a start with tightness in his biceps. He held the Brewers without a hit in 2 1-3 scoreless innings. The left-hander struck out two, walked one and hit a batter.


“I felt really good out there, sometimes too good, overthrowing a little bit,” Davis said.


Gallardo has held opponents without a run in four of his five starts this spring. His second shutout performance gives him a string of nine consecutive scoreless innings.


“It’s a good feeling. I was able to repeat what I did in my last start,” he said. “It just feels good to come out and do that again, especially after the one I had in Kansas City.”


Gallardo was referring to his lone bad outing of the spring, two starts ago, when he gave up seven runs, five earned, in just two-thirds of an inning.


He’s held opponents scoreless in his other four spring starts. Gallardo struck out five and gave up two hits in four scoreless innings against the Royals last Friday.


Hoffman progress slow

Hoffman, who has not appeared in a game since feeling tightness in his right oblique after Friday’s outing, is shut down and has been getting treatment.


Macha said the progress is “step-by-step” and has been slow. Hoffman did plyometrics throwing Wednesday, and there is no timetable for his return.


Macha and assistant general manager Gord Ash said Tuesday their concern over the Grade 1 strain—there are three levels of oblique strains, with Grade 1 being the least severe—was minimal. Hoffman said something similar but said all injuries are concerning, especially at age 41.


“Anytime you have an injury, no matter how big or small it is, when you get down to three weeks before the season starts, your concern is where it should be,” Hoffman said vaguely. “Obviously it’s not much, but you’re still dealing with limited time.


”With obliques, it’s a lot of rotational stuff, so you’re limited in what you’re doing so it curtails anything you can do.“


Finding at-bats

With Bill Hall healthy and taking the majority of the innings at third base lately, Macha has been finding innings and at-bats for Mike Lamb and Casey McGehee, guys trying to win an opening day roster spot.


Lamb has been getting more time at first base while McGehee has played five games at second over the last 11 days.



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