Roenicke reluctant to call anyone an ace
MILWAUKEE — The question would've been easy to answer before Zack Greinke was dealt at this season's trade deadline. But now, with the Milwaukee Brewers rotation more in flux than it has been in years, the question makes manager Ron Roenicke noticeably skittish.
Who is the Brewers' ace?
The nature of the query isn't the uncomfortable part. It's that final word — ace — that changes everything.
"I never really called any of our guys aces," Roenicke said at the beginning of August. "I don't think I really want to say it that way. It's consistency over a season and over years that really makes a guy an ace. You can say maybe (Yovani Gallardo) is the best pitcher on our staff, if you want to say things like that, but I don't like to say that because then somebody else who's pitching well asks, ‘Why did he say that about him?' That's why I never say things like that."
The title of ace is something every starting pitcher wants but most pitchers won't admit to wanting. They are teammates after all, competing with one another, yet still in it for a common goal. But that doesn't mean the ambition to be considered the best isn't below the surface.
Rookie Mike Fiers is new to the Brewers' clubhouse, but he understands Roenicke's stance on naming someone an ace. None of Milwaukee's pitchers is an outright, obvious ace — the kind of dominant performer who is in the hunt for a Cy Young every year and strikes fear into the hearts of batters.
"Having that title of being an ace carries a lot of things," Fiers said. "For one, you've got to be really good and you've got to have the great stuff, you've got to be a leader. There's a lot of things behind that. To have that title, it might be tough on a guy, unless you're someone like Felix Hernandez or someone like that."
That doesn't mean being an ace someday is not on Fiers' mind. He meekly admits as much. Even as one of the least touted members of the Brewers rotation, Fiers can dream up a future when he's the ace of Milwaukee's staff. He's thought about it quite a bit, in fact.
"Coming into this game, being a pitcher, you don't want to be considered average," Fiers said. "At least I don't. I want to be the best pitcher here. I like the competition, and I like having guys in front of me that are better. It makes me work harder and strive to be where they are. I want to be the best pitcher on the team, something that the players here and the coaches feel confident that we're going to get a win whenever I go out there."
It seems if there's any one factor that defines an ace, it's that: confidence — not only in yourself but also from your teammates and the organization.
When the Detroit Tigers trot out Justin Verlander, he and the organization expect a win, Fiers said. The same can be said for Hernandez. Or Anaheim's Jered Weaver. Or San Francisco's Matt Cain. But do the Brewers have that kind of pitcher? Can they claim an ace?
For the first few months of the 2012 season, that question seemed to have an obvious answer. Greinke had the most consistent stuff, the best command and the ace aura that seemed to bring fans to the ballpark expecting a win. But, Fiers said, Greinke never liked the label. He wasn't one to draw extra attention to himself in that fashion. And when he was traded to Anaheim, the question became noticeably more difficult to answer.
But since Greinke's trade, a new opportunity to fill an open ace position has emerged more fully than ever before.
Since giving up seven earned runs in five innings to Washington just days before Greinke was traded, Gallardo has been one of baseball's best pitchers with a 2.02 ERA in five starts. Opposing hitters are batting just .205 against him in that span, and with his stuff as nasty as ever, Gallardo is striking out more batters looking than he had all season.
And true to the form set by other aces in baseball, Gallardo has been going deeper in games than ever before. In all five of the outings since Greinke's trade, Gallardo has pitched at least seven innings. In his 26 starts this season, Gallardo has lasted fewer than six innings just four times — twice against the Cardinals and once each against Cincinnati and Washington, the two best teams in the NL.
"I saw some really good games early, but we haven't seen that stretch like we did last year for about four months, where he's been great every time," Roenicke said before Gallardo's last impressive outing. "The last few starts have been good, but we'll see if he can maintain that and keep consistent, like he's done here since he's come up to the big leagues. He's always been a consistent pitcher. That's what I expect from him."
With Greinke gone, though, are those expectations growing? While Roenicke won't say it officially, it's clear that Gallardo is the team's No. 1 pitcher, at least at the moment. But Gallardo says he has yet to feel any pressure of that sort.
"It's the same person out there every five days," Gallardo said. "I really haven't thought about it, to be honest."
But as the rotation begins to come into focus for 2013, the question of whether Gallardo's can be a dominant No. 1 — a true ace — will likely be a topic of conversation, affecting whether the Brewers opt to sign big-time free agent pitcher or stick with what they have.
For now at least, Roenicke's not willing to give any hints.
"I don't want to put a No. 1 on somebody and say whether he is or not," Roenicke said. "(Gallardo has) pitched like a No. 1 at times. But the consistency when you talk about a true number one, you have to pitch lights out for three, four, five years to be a true number one. I don't think there's that many in baseball."
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