May 13th, 2011
With more than 14 years service time in the major leagues, LaTroy Hawkins is the most experienced player on the Milwaukee Brewers’ roster. At 38, he’s also the second-oldest.
Ask the right-hander about it, though, and he’ll tell you it’s all just a state of mind.
I don’t feel old,” he said. “I can still go out there and do a lot of the things the young guys can do.”
While it’s only been about three weeks since he rejoined the Brewers’ active roster, the numbers Hawkins has put up in his eight appearances have indeed kept him in line with his more junior compatriots: 7 2/3 innings pitched, a 1.17 ERA and WHIP and four strikeouts.
It’s a small sample, no doubt. But for a guy who’s only about nine months removed from surgery on his throwing shoulder and a team that has an acute need for some stability in its bullpen, it’s also something positive to build on as Hawkins’ velocity and location continue to improve.
A year ago at this time, frustration was the buzzword for both parties.
One of the more reliable and durable relievers in the majors since 2000, Hawkins had signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract to do the same for the Brewers. He came to Milwaukee from Houston, where he enjoyed something of a rebirth in 2009, when he posted a 2.13 ERA and 11 saves in 65 appearances for the Astros.
But almost from the start with the Brewers, things didn’t go as planned.
Hawkins sat out a couple of weeks in spring training with tightness in his right shoulder and then after tossing 3 1/3 scoreless innings in his first four regular-season outings, blew saves by giving up seven earned runs in a pair of losses at Chicago and Washington.
He rebounded over his next six appearances, allowing just one earned run, but then fell apart again in a home loss to Los Angeles when the Dodgers tagged him for four earned runs in just one-third inning to drop his record to 0-3.
“I never could repeat pitches, my velocity had plummeted and I just got frustrated,” Hawkins said. “It was very frustrating being out there knowing I couldn’t get extension on my pitches, where if I got out too far it felt like I was sticking my hand in an electrical socket.”
Milwaukee placed him on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder weakness three days later and then eventually the 60-day DL, where he remained until being reinstated on July 29 after pitching six times in two different rehab assignments.
Hawkins made it just 4 1/3 innings over the next 12 days before being returned to the DL on Aug. 12. A little over two weeks later, he had his right labrum scoped – his first surgery of any kind in 19 seasons of pro ball.
“The toughest part was going all those years without being injured and feeling like you’re invincible, and all of a sudden having an injury where you can’t throw a baseball like you used to be able to throw it,” he said. “I used to be able to just pick up a ball and throw it.
“When I picked up a ball last year it was like, ‘OK, let me get my shoulder set right, get it to where it won’t hurt.’ I think that was the most stressful part about it – not feeling invincible.”
Hawkins next picked up a baseball on Dec. 1 but didn’t like how he felt, so he flew back to Los Angeles to visit with Lewis Yocum, who performed the surgery.
“He told me, ‘I’ve done 500,000 of these surgeries. You didn’t have surgery at 27. You had surgery at 37. Give it a little time. We’re going to shut you down for another month, pick up a ball Jan. 1 and see how you feel,’ ” Hawkins said. “He told me, ‘You’ll be all right – I promise.’ ”
Hawkins did what he was told and Yocum was proved right.
“I picked up a ball Jan. 1 and it was like, ‘Whoa. I haven’t felt like that in a long time,’ ” he said. “I haven’t had any problems after that.”
Hawkins ramped up his rehab from there, and by the second week of this season was in the midst of a handful of minor-league rehab outings while remaining on the DL. He was reinstated April 21 and pitched for the first time the next day against the Astros.
In his seven appearances since, Hawkins hasn’t given up a run as he continues to try to increase his velocity.
“I’m not back to where I was, but I can still get it up there when I reach back,” he said. “Before the injury I didn’t have to reach back and get it up there. Now I save a little bit, and it’s always there if I need it.”
Unsure if he’d ever be able to get back into the mid-90s during his rehab, Hawkins was forced to work more on his off-speed stuff to compensate. That added work, he hopes, also will pay dividends.
“It did make me concentrate on my breaking balls, my change-up, because if I didn’t get my velocity back I’d have to rely on those pitches a tremendous amount,” he said. “More than I’ve ever had to rely on those pitches before.”
Hawkins continues to earn the trust of manager Ron Roenicke, as well. With his bullpen battling myriad maladies since spring training, Roenicke believes Hawkins could be a perfect fit in the seventh inning, bridging the way for setup man Kameron Loe and closer John Axford.
“I’m hoping he can take off with that,” Roenicke said. “If he can, that really puts guys in their place in the bullpen.”
In the meantime, Hawkins has made concessions to his age in the form of extra stretching, massage therapy and ultrasound before and after games – things he never even thought of in his younger days.
“I’m in the ‘preparation’ period of my career,” he said. “But you know what? If it’s going to keep me on the field, keep me healthy, that’s what’s most important.”
by Adam McClavy
There was Zack Greinke’s first Brewers start, then his first home start and his first Brewers win. Now comes another first for the home fans: Greinke and Yovani Gallardo pitching in the same series at Miller Park.
Gallardo will go first on Friday night against the Pirates, the Brewers’ favorite punching bags since 2007. Left-hander Chris Narveson is slated to pitch Saturday, and Greinke will finish the series on Sunday afternoon.
The bolstered staff has general manager Doug Melvin dealing with a new problem.
“This is the first time in 15 years as a GM that I’ve gone around town and now heard, ‘We need some hitting!’” said Melvin. “It’s the first time people haven’t been getting on me about our pitching.”
He’ll take it, considering where the Brewers have been.
Melvin made pitching, particularly starting pitching, a high priority after two seasons lost to pitching problems. After the sensational CC Sabathia carried the Brewers to the 2008 National League Wild Card and then departed via free agency along with longtime Brewer Ben Sheets, Milwaukee tied for last in the Majors with a 5.37 starters’ ERA in ’09. The Brewers invested just shy of $30 million in free agent Randy Wolf the following winter, but they improved only to 27th of the 30 teams in ’10, with a 4.65 starters’ ERA.
After a strong start in 2011 — Brewers starting pitchers led the NL in ERA through April 21, even while Greinke recovered on the disabled list from his cracked left rib — they are back in the bottom half of baseball. Including back-to-back tough starts for Shaun Marcum and Wolf this week, Milwaukee has fallen to 21st, with a 4.25 starters’ ERA.
If Gallardo’s no-hit bid on Saturday in St. Louis is a sign he’s back on track after a string of five subpar starts, that would help. So should Greinke’s arrival.
But some Brewers wonder if hopes are still running a bit too high.
“He was pretty good, but I still think people have sort of unrealistic expectations,” Ryan Braun said of Greinke’s Miller Park debut on Monday. “He’s not going to throw a no-hitter every time. He’s not going to be perfect.
“I think people expect him to do what CC did. That’s just not realistic.”
Greinke was sharp through his first four innings on Monday against the Padres, but he lost some zip on his fastball and command of all of his pitches in the fifth and the sixth. Those areas should improve as he builds arm strength after missing most of Spring Training. He’s thrown only 86 and 89 pitches in his two Brewers starts.
Greinke has already been compared often to Sabathia, who was otherworldly after joining the Brewers in a July 2008 trade. Both are former American League Cy Young Award winners, Sabathia in ’07 and Greinke in ’09, and joined a Brewers club with postseason aspirations.
But they’re not the same, Melvin argues.
“They’re two different stories,” Melvin said. “CC was July and in a pennant race. We had never won before.”
Greinke was over the winter, with the Brewers trying to climb back into contention.
“The similarities are that we were surprised we got them,” Melvin said. “But as far as the expectations go, the team is altogether different.
“It’s always hard to put the expectations on one pitcher. They’re 30-some games of 162. That’s not even 20 percent of your schedule.”
The Brewers are actually excited about 60-some starts, between Greinke and fellow newcomer Marcum. With Gallardo, a 2010 All-Star, that’s a relatively formidable 1-2-3, and all three pitchers are under contract at least through the end of 2012.
“With three starters like that who can go out and beat anybody in the league … we have some great weapons,” catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. “I consider [myself] to be pretty blessed to catch guys of this quality, for sure.”
Now, the challenge will be getting all phases of the team working together. The Brewers’ usually-potent offense is just coming out of a deep funk, the defense has been unsteady, the baserunning mistake-filled and the bullpen injury-struck.
That combination means the Brewers took a day off Thursday with a 16-21 record, in fifth place in the NL Central and five games behind first-place St. Louis.
“I wish we had been playing a bit better coming into [Greinke's return],” Melvin said, “but we all know that if we get good pitching, we can stay in this thing.
“I understand the excitement. I’ve been around here, and I get why the fans are excited, because they’ve never seen [Greinke] pitch before. Our offseas