MILWAUKEE — For most of his career, Yovani Gallardo has been overshadowed at the top of the Milwaukee Brewers’ rotation.
From Ben Sheets to C.C. Sabathia and then Zack Greinke, Milwaukee has had three bona fide aces for the majority of Gallardo’s six years in the big leagues. But with Greinke and the other established veterans gone from the Brewers rotation, Gallardo is now the veteran and clear-cut ace of the staff. Unlike in 2009 and 2010 when he was the team’s best pitcher but still maturing, Gallardo is now ready to become the leader.
“Of course, who wouldn’t?” Gallardo, 26, said of taking on that role. “It’s one of those things I think anybody wants at some point in their career. I’ve been here for a while now, and I’ve seen Sheets, C.C., Greinke, all of those guys come in and out and here I am.
“It just means a little more responsibility. I just have to go out there and teach the guys; help them out, whatever they need. Just take care of them, basically.”
In between Sabathia and Greinke, Gallardo was pretty much all the Brewers had. In 2009, Braden Looper had the next-lowest ERA behind Gallardo at 5.22. Randy Wolf helped provide a bit of stability in 2010, but the rotation still struggled. In 2009 and 2010, Brewers pitchers who ended the season with ERAs over 5.00 started 147 games.
Gallardo will lead another staff filled with question marks this season, but he thinks it’s much different this time around — everyone around him is young and improving.
“It’s a bunch of young guys, but look at the kind of stuff that they have, they have great stuff,” Gallardo said. “They are not afraid to attack the strike zone. They are not afraid to face anybody that is up there.
“Look at what Oakland did (last year). They did it with a bunch of young pitchers. And we saw what the guys did last year for us. They stepped up when they had to step up. They are aggressive.”
One thing Gallardo learned late last season about pitchers like Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers was how committed they were to learning from him. During games in which Gallardo wasn’t pitching, the other guys sat near him in the dugout looking to pick his brain.
“Believe it or not, we talk about the situations in the game (in the dugout),” Gallardo said. “The guys are young but they went out there and pitch so well. They were watching and paying attention, working hard and making a game plan on how to attack a certain hitter or a certain team.”
Personally, Gallardo is looking to build on a 2012 season that was much like his three previous ones. He topped 200 innings for the second straight year, posting a 3.66 ERA with a 16-9 record in 33 starts.
The final numbers would have been a lot better if Gallardo would have come out of the gates a bit faster. The right-hander had a 6.08 ERA in five April outings. This year, Gallardo believes he has a way to prevent a slow start. Echoing the thoughts of many of his teammates who are also playing in the World Baseball Classic, Gallardo believes pitching in more competitive games for Mexico will get him in a groove earlier.
He’s already started throwing bullpen sessions and will be heading to Milwaukee’s spring training facility in Phoenix this week to begin working with pitching coach Rick Kranitz.
“I think it will help out,” Gallardo said. “It will prepare me and get me ready for Opening Day quicker than spring training. Games are more competitive, and you are actually playing for something.”
Many big-name pitchers have shied from participating in the WBC because of a fear of injury or adding innings to their seasons, but Gallardo never hesitated to sign up. He was eager to pitch for his country four years ago, but the tournament came the spring following the year he missed most of the season with a torn ACL.
“I’m pretty excited about it,” Gallardo said. “I’m looking forward to it. Just to have that opportunity to experience it, it should be a lot of fun.
“You hear things about guys getting hurt because it is early in the season, but then again before last year I had thoughts about participating. I had the mindset to start my things a little bit earlier than normal to kind of avoid that.”
Team Mexico happens to be in the same pool as Team USA and Team Canada. The Brewers have relievers John Axford and Jim Henderson on Team Canada, but Gallardo has his sights set on facing Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy with Team USA.
Gallardo almost got a chance to face Braun when both played in the Futures Game in 2006. With Braun on deck, Gallardo got infielder Eric Patterson out to end the inning and avoid facing his minor-league teammate. Though he may get the chance to face Braun this time around, Gallardo is anticipating a battle with his catcher.
“It will be weird, especially Luc, he’s caught for me and knows what I throw,” Gallardo said. “It should be fun, too.”
How will he fool the guy who knows more about his pitches than anyone?
“Probably do the opposite of what he’ll think I do.”