MILWAUKEE — After putting together a fine season in Triple-A, Johnny Hellweg has the spotlight placed on him for his September audition.
Milwaukee’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year provided a mixed bag of results Saturday afternoon, struggling due to a lack of command early but then provided three scoreless innings.
Hellweg’s second start since coming back up from the minor leagues wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t the follow up the young right-hander wanted after collecting his first major-league win last time out. Cincinnati scored four runs in the first two innings off Hellweg and hung on for a 7-3 victory at Miller Park.
“The first two innings (were a big step back),” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “I was glad he got through the third, fourth and fifth. I think it was important for him to do that. The first two innings were tough.”
Early on, Hellweg showed the command issues he fought in his first stint in the big leagues. Shin-Soo Choo led off the game with a double and scored on a Joey Votto sacrifice fly to put Hellweg in an early hole.
Hellweg’s lone walk of the game bit him with two outs in the first inning as Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier followed the free pass to Jay Bruce with consecutive singles to make it 2-0.
Though Hellweg didn’t walk a batter after the first inning he did hit three batters. The first victim was Reds pitcher Homer Bailey in the second inning. The mistake became painful when Choo followed with a home run off the scoreboard to put the Reds up 4-0 after two innings.
“I didn’t get going as fast as I would have liked it to,” Hellweg said of his command. “It took me a little bit longer to get in a groove.”
To Hellweg’s credit, he did finish his outing with three straight scoreless innings, but they didn’t come easy. A double play helped get him out of the third inning, he stranded two in the fourth and the Reds ran themselves out of the fifth inning.
“I felt like I put together some solid innings,” Hellweg said. “A couple of indecisions on some pitches, hit a guy on one of them and the other one kind of slipped. But besides that, I felt the latter part of the game went a lot better.”
Hellweg seemed overwhelmed by the moment during his first few big-league starts, but his emotions are hard to read because of the calmness in which he carries himself with. Roenicke hasn’t quite got the feel for the 24-year-old quite yet and doesn’t sense nervousness in the dugout.
It’s natural for a young player to let nerves get the best of them early, and Hellweg admitted he’s been fighting a little bit of nervousness with the Brewers.
“It’s definitely an adjustment process getting everything to come together,” Hellweg said. “I feel like it’s getting better every day.
“I think it’s just getting comfortable. I don’t think it’s going to come overnight like I want it to. I think I’ll have to keep going out there and keep grinding through it.”
The Brewers fought back from the 4-0 hole to cut the deficit to just one run with a three-run fourth inning off Bailey. Khris Davis and Carlos Gomez had RBI hits in the frame, while Jeff Bianchi drove in the third run on a sacrifice fly.
Using Hellweg’s short start as a chance to get relievers who haven’t pitched lately some work, Roenicke gave Michael Blazek, Jimmy Nelson and Alfredo Figaro the game’s middle innings. Blazek allowed a towering two-run home run off the top of the foul pole to Votto in the sixth, extending Cincinnati’s lead to 6-3.
The Reds added another run off Figaro in the eighth inning, but the Brewers brought the tying run to the plate with two outs in the bottom half of the inning. Knowing Cincinnati would turn to hard-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, Roenicke pinch hit Jonathan Lucroy for Martin Maldonado.
Lucroy hit a walk-off home run in his last at-bat against Cincinnati’s closer, but Chapman got the best of him Saturday. Coming in cold off the bench, Lucroy struck out swinging to end the inning.
“I hate striking out with the bases loaded. I don’t care who it is on the mound pitching, I hate striking out.” said Lucroy, who added it was no excuse that he had sat on the bench all afternoon before that at-bat.
Roenicke indicated after the game he still plans on starting Hellweg against the Cardinals instead of possibly bumping him up a day to face a weaker Cubs lineup. Facing one of the best offenses in baseball will be yet another big test for the rookie.
It didn’t appear as if Hellweg was going to provide much early on Saturday, but he rebounded to at least be able to use the loss as another building block.
“There were some positives and some negatives,” Hellweg said. “I felt like I battled pretty decent. I got in trouble early and put up some zeros to be able to get through five. I had more out there, but I felt like I was good getting through five.
“It’s not coming as quick as I’d like it to, but I feel like it’s getting better each time I go out there.”