When the Milwaukee Brewer’s season began in earnest five months ago, Brew Crew fans expected the playoffs. Prince Fielder had just become the youngest player in history to hit 50 home runs, Ryan Bruan was the league’s reigning NL Rookie of the Year, and Ben Sheets was finally healthy.
The pitching staff looked full of potential and the 'pen looked deeper and more stable. Sheets was the staff’s ace, with Yovani Gallardo, an ace in waiting, coming off a spectacular debut in 2007. Veteran gamer Jeff Suppan was the third starter that had been brought in to help this team win in the postseason.
Bullpen stalwarts and talented youngsters Carlos Villanueva and lefty Manny Parra debuted as starters, much to the joy of Brewer fans who tried to forget the inconsistency of Claudio Vargas and the collapse of Chris Capuano.
Now, facing their first trip to the postseason in 26 years, the Brewers' starting rotation looks entirely different. Ace, and MVP candidate, CC Sabathia came over from the Indians in arguably the biggest trade of the season and has gone 11-2 with a sparkling 1.65 ERA.
Co-ace Ben Sheets may have thrown his last pitch in a Milwaukee uniform, following elbow problems. Additionally, Manny Parra, who looked like he was pushing to give the ‘Crew a second-straight Rookie of the Year, has fallen off the map and lost his starting spot in the rotation once Manager Ned Yost lost his job.
Making matters worse, Jeff Suppan has struggled in September, going 0-3 with an 10.47 ERA and .382 average by opponents.
Interim manager Dale Sveum has thus far been mum on a playoff rotation against the Philadelphia Phillies beyond the first two games, perhaps in part because he doesn’t have that many options.
Luckily for the Brewers, Milwaukee, has plenty of long-relief options to mix and match if Sveum and the Brewers don’t feel confident in naming a starter that they expect to go seven innings. That could make things difficult for Charlie Manuel and the Phillies to put together a gameplan much in advance.
Let’s look at what Manuel and those dangerous Phils hitters will be looking at with this Brewer’s staff.
Yovani Gallardo (RHP) - 0-0 1.88 ERA
Coaches and scouts in the Brewers organization believe Gallardo actually has better stuff than their oft-injured ace Ben Sheets, even when Big Ben is healthy. That is quite the compliment, considering Sheets was a Cy Young candidate for much of the season, not to mention the NL All-Star starter.
Actually, the two pitchers have very similar style. Gallardo has a fastball in the mid-90s that he can throw up to 96 at times. He loves to hit the outside corner with his fastball and freeze hitters, particularly righties. "Yo" will set that pitch up with his sharp hammer curve.
Like most curveballers, he can throw it for strikes and put it in the dirt to get strike outs. The scariest part is that, at just 22-years old, his stuff remains a work in progress.
He is polishing his change-up, which he throws more to lefties and has developed a cutter, which he will run in hitter’s fists. It doesn’t have the kind of sharp break that CC’s does, but when it starts down the middle and then moves in on a hitter's hands, it is tough for hitters to lay off and it leads to pop-ups and strikeouts.
Take a look at Yo’s recent spot start against the Pirates, and you’ll see what he can do. In just four innings, Gallardo struck out seven Pirate hitters while giving up just three hits and a lone run on a home run. This is from a guy who has been rehabbing a blown out knee since May 1.
With Gallardo’s diverse stuff, he gets groundballs and flyballs at about an equal ratio. While Yo can be a dominant strikeout pitcher, he does not rely on them as much as other young hurlers might. Gallardo will average around five or six strikeouts a game, but he has double-digit potential any time he takes the hill.
Luckily for the Brewers, he is helping his own cause for longevity by pitching to contact more. This is Milwaukee’s ace in waiting, and his 1.88 ERA in four starts this season tells the story as to why.
vs. Phillies Hitters
Fortunately for the Brewers, the Phillies have not seen Gallardo very much. In 25 at-bats, the Phillies have just six hits against seven strikeouts. Of those six hits, just two were for extra bases (ironically, one of those hits came from the Phillies' starting pitcher, Kyle Kendrick).
Additionally, despite Gallardo’s splits against lefties, Ryan Howard and Greg Dobbs are both 0-2, and Chase Utley has never faced Gallardo. Gallardo, who likes to work away to lefties, will throw his fastballs both the two seam and cut, away to Utley and Howard, forcing them to go opposite field. Howard’s batting just .121 versus curveballs, but he works fastballs particularly from righties.
Gallardo will probably challenge righties like Burrell and Rollins inside with fastballs and get them out on the outside corner. If Gallardo can find the corners, the Philly bats will have to shorten up, negating their outstanding power.
Gallardo wasn't even born the last time the Brewers went to the playoffs, but the importance and pressure of Game One will not be lost on this 22-year old. Add in an outstanding hitting lineup and a tiny ballpark, and Gallardo will be up against it. That doesn't even consider that until last week, Gallardo had been rehabbing a knee he tore up back in May.
After going four innings against the Pirates, Manager Dale Sveum probably expects five maybe even six from Gallardo, depending on the situation. From there, the Brewers will look to their long-inning relievers like Seth McClung and Carlos Villanueva, who have been solid for the Crew down the stretch.
It will be a battle of two supremely talented, young, and playoff untested hurlers in Game One Wednesday.
CC Sabathia (LHP) 11-2 1.65 ERA
This 6'7", 290-pound (generous) man-child has the kind of stuff that opposing hitting coaches dread. He features a mid-90’s fastball, which he can command to either side of the plate. If he can get ahead with the fastball first pitch, as a hitter, you’re already in serious trouble.
CC can put hitters away with that fastball up in the zone or freeze you with it at the knees. Sabathia will throw change-ups to righties, to whom he often works inside with that fastball. This big lefty rarely throws the change-up to lefties and likes to work it down on the corners, and up and away. That makes CC’s cutter so nasty (CC calls it a cutter, but it is really a slider).
Sabathia will use the cutter down and away to lefties and down and in to righties. The cutter is CC’s strikeout pitch against left-handed batters and a groundball pitch to righties.
Right now, there isn’t a starting pitcher that can match Sabathia at getting hitters out. Since coming to Milwaukee, CC has 128 K’s in 130.2 innings pitched, giving up just 106 base knocks. That is an incredible .81 base hits per inning.
Sabathia’s strike out per innings pitch statistics are outstanding, but unlike many strike-out pitchers, CC can put hitters away, evident in his ability to go complete so often (His seven GG lead the NL).
There is no guessing with Sabathia because he will throw any of his pitches at any times. With his cutter and great command of a fastball and change-up, Sabathia can get the groundballs when he needs them and the strikeouts to put innings away. There won’t be many balls hit out of the infield with this guy on the mound.
vs. Phillies Hitters
The biggest advantage in this series for the Brewers is that not very many Phillies hitters have seen their ace. Only backup second basemen Tadahito Iguchi has seen Sabathia more than a handful of times. Making matters worse for Philly, the guys who have faced CC, haven’t fared very well.
In 63 team at-bats, the Phillies have just 12 hits for a .190 batting average. I can’t imagine Manuel sitting lefty Utley for Iguchi, but he might sit Feliz at third against CC.
Stacking the lineup with righties won’t help much, since Sabathia still has a .247 average against right-handed hitters and strikes out righties at almost the same rate as he does lefties.
Sabathia represents a nightmare matchup for most hitters, but with the left-handed muscle in this Philadelphia lineup, it ought to be even tougher.
When Sabathia pitches in Game Two, he’ll be going on short rest for the fourth-straight time, coming off a complete game four-hitter against the Cubs, which locked in the Brewers for the Wild Card. Sabathia has worn down a little in September, having to pitch on short rest coming off a spectacular August.
Sabathia has put his heart and soul into this playoff chase, endearing himself to Brewers fans forever. I'm sure those dollar signs on the line with CC’s impending free agency will also help him to pitch like he has something to prove in this series.
Brett Myers was excellent against the Brewers in their late season matchup, so the Brewers will need Cy Young CC to make a victorious return to Milwaukee for Game Three.
Also, if there is a Game Five, Sabathia will get the start on full rest to try and get the Crew to the NLDS.
Dave Bush (RHP) 9-10 4.12 ERA
Given his stuff, Bush has wildly underachieved in his career. “Bushie” has outstanding movement on every pitch he throws, and when he is commanding his breaking pitches, he can be very tough.
Late in the first half against Toronto, Bush actually had a no hitter going into the eighth inning before finishing with two hits and a giving up a run. Early on this year, Bush struggled with his command, but since the break, he is 4-2 with a 3.91 ERA.
With a fastball topping out around 90, Bush uses some natural break to fool hitters and keep them from sitting on it.
Luckily, Bush has sharp breaking pitches to get hitters out. His best breaking ball is his curve. He likes to throw it while ahead in counts, and unlike some of the other Brewers pitchers, he rarely hangs it. His slider can be an effective strikeout pitch, particularly to righties, but when it flattens out, it is very hittable.
Bush likes to work the change up down and in, and when he gets in trouble with home runs, this is the pitch he will leave out over the plate.
Keeping the ball down and in the park is the key for Bush. When he is commanding his pitches, he is getting groundball outs and pop-ups. Bush has given up just 163 in 185 innings pitched, which is excellent for a pitcher who doesn’t rely heavily on the strikeout.
With the natural movement of his pitches, hitters have a hard time centering on them. When Bush misses, however, and hitters guess right, Bush's lack of overpowering stuff will cause him to give up home runs. Bush relies on keeping hitters off balance rather than trying to blow hitters away, something he has been doing consistently over the last two months.
vs. Phillies Hitters
Bush came to Philadelphia coming off a 4-0 August in which he posted a 2.12 ERA in five starts. Bush pitched well, giving up just three runs on five hits, two of those runs coming on a Shane Victorino home run. The bullpen blew that game for the Brewers, who ended up losing 7-3.
Much like the rest of this season, history tells us that game was an aberration for Bush. This Phillies team has raked against the former Wake Forest star, putting up a .309 average with 11 home runs on 43 hits. In fact, 22 of those 43 hits are for extra bases.
Matt Stairs, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, and Patt Burrell all have lifetime averages over .300 against Bushie and Greg Dobbs, Chase Utley, and Tad Iguchi all have averages over .400.
Bush has been the Brewer’s most reliable starter in the second half, outside of CC Sabathia. When he keeps the ball down and in the park, he can be stellar and carry the team defensively.
This Phillies lineup can be susceptible to strikeouts, and if Bush can command that slider and change, he has a good chance to get these hitters out. Starting at home, where he is 6-4 with a 3.60 ERA bodes well for the ‘Crew, who will go up against the ageless wonder Jamie Moyer in the pivotal Game Three.
Jeff Suppan (RHP) 10-10 4.96 ERA
Of Brewers starters, Suppan has by far the most pedestrian stuff. When Suppan doesn’t have command, he doesn’t have the kind of outstanding talent to rely on in getting outs, like a Sheets or Sabathia. His fastball tops out in the upper 80s and as such his command is of the utmost importance.
If he can find the corners, Suppan will be very tough, but with a small strike zone from umpires, Supp is stubborn and will walk hitters. His best secondary pitch is his slider, which he use mostly on right-handed batters to induce groundballs and strikeouts.
Versus lefties, Suppan will throw more change-ups and curveballs. Unfortunately for the Brewers, too many times this season Suppan has left that change-up over the middle and it has been pounded.
Suppan uses his breaking pitches to keep hitters off balance and swinging at pitches out of the zone. When hitters can square on the ball, normally they hit it hard. Because of his propensity for stubborn at-bats, Suppan will walk batters, which can lead to pitching in and out of trouble.
When his breaking stuff hits the intended spot, there are groundball outs, double plays, and ways out of trouble. Suppan’s last start was a perfect example, when he went five innings, giving up eight hits but allowed just one run. That start came during his ghastly September, in which he posted an ERA over 10. (In August, he was 5-0 with an ERA of three.)
vs. Phillies Hitters
If not for Suppan’s history against Philadelphia, he likely would have been the starter for Game One, given the Brewer’s staff situation. Suppan sports a 5.91 ERA against the Phils this season. Just about all the boppers for the Phillies hit Suppan hard, especially Chase Utley, who is 9-19 lifetime against him.
Pat Burrell also owns Suppan, batting .429 with three home runs, eight RBI, and six BB in 21 at-bats. Even Cole Hammels is two for three. However, from 2005-2007, Suppan had a 9-1 record in September, with 2.68 ERA while posting a 1.93 October ERA.
You bring in a pitcher over 30 with a lifetime ERA over 4.5 because he can get outs and can pitch in the postseason. For his career, Suppan has a postseason ERA of just 3.0. In 2006, when Suppan was the NLDS MVP for the Cardinals, he started four games and posted a 2.49 ERA.
Suppan would have been the starter for Game One on regular rest, but Sveum and the coaches were clearly concerned about his inconsistency. My guess is if the Brewer’s are up 2-1 heading into Game Four, Suppan will be the pitcher. Down 1-2, Dale Sveum will have very tough decisions to make.