Spring training gets Brewers into game shape
PHOENIX – The start of Cactus League play is welcomed by players and fans alike. Fans look forward to the chance to welcome back baseball for another year by soaking in the Arizona sun while players embrace the opportunity to hone their skills against real, live competition for the first time.
And while an official score is kept and victories and losses are recorded, spring training games aren't contested primarily for the purpose of winning; its about getting eased into regular season shape.
For the Milwaukee Brewers, who return a sizable chunk of last year's National League Central championship squad, these 33 games are all about fine tuning. Most of the team's players are veterans, with enough experience to know exactly what they need to do in order to be ready when the balls and strikes count for real on April 6.
Last season, manager Ron Roenicke's camp earned rave reviews from his players. Veteran Craig Counsell, now a member of the Brewers' front office, called it the best spring training of his 16-year career.
The current crop of players says Roenicke sets the tone for a fun and productive camp.
"He sets the tone," says left fielder Ryan Braun. "Ron comes here every day with a smile on his face and encouraging us to play with enthusiasm and energy, be productive and efficient with our time."
That he has so many veteran players at his disposal makes the job a little easier for Roenicke, who can devote plenty of attention to young players looking to crack the few remaining roster spots.
"There are guys we need to look at," Roenicke says. "The younger guys, they have things to prove. Guys like (Norichika) Aoki, we haven't seen a lot of him. But the guys who have been there before, I don't worry much about them. They know what they have to do to be ready."
Players like Mike Rivera, who is battling George Kottaras for the No. 2 roster spot, have to take a slightly different approach. In addition to preparing themselves for opening day, they have the added pressure of having to produce in order to earn a chance to make the team.
"I just need to show them what I can do," Rivera says. "They know I have the experience so I just have to work hard every day and do what I can to make the team. If not, I'll be ready."
Last season, Rivera opened the season with Class AAA Nashville but was recalled to Milwaukee in mid-May. He was returned to Nashville later in the year, where he had the chance to work with some of the organization's top pitching prospects.
"If they need me to go to Nashville, I'll do what I can to help the younger guys," Rivera says. "But like last year, you have to be ready when they call you."
In the meantime, different players go about spring camp in different ways but hardly anyone puts much stock in statistics. Pitchers usually have the upper-hand during the first few weeks of games, as batters adjust to seeing live pitching for the first time in months.
Braun, who expects to get between 30-40 at-bats during Cactus League play, says its all about getting back into a routine.
"For the most part, it's getting back your timing and rhythm," Braun says. "You're trying to get some consistency in your approach."
On the other hand, pitchers use spring training for a number of things. First and foremost, they're trying to build their arm strength back to the point where they can consistently throw 100 pitches a game.
Because preparing to pitch a full season is more about repetition, Roenicke uses a hands-off approach with his more experienced pitchers.
"Guys like Randy Wolf, (Yovani) Gallardo, (Shaun) Marcum and (Zack) Greinke, they're just getting their work in," Roenicke says. "They're preparing themselves for opening day. I really don't care what happens with them back here. They may be working on a new pitch. Gallardo, it's out there that he's working on his changeup. He might get hit a little bit more because he's working on that pitch and that doesn't bother me.
"Jose Veras pitched last night and got hit a little bit. And I worried about it? No, because I know once he gets his command and he's back down low again, he's going to be fine for us. Those guys, I don't worry about. The young guys, it's important for those guys to show something."
Pitchers, hitters, veterans and rookies alike do have one thing in common during camp: they're all trying to get into baseball shape, and more than anything else, want to stay healthy the entire time.
"It's a process," Braun says. "The goal is to be in good of baseball shape as you possibly can as close to the start of the season as you possibly can.
"It's all about quality over quantity, which is good. We're here for a long time."