It wasn’t the most confidence-inducing spring training, at least on paper.
The Milwaukee Brewers’ signature offseason move, free agent starter Matt Garza, gave up 15 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings in the spring heat of Arizona. Last year’s top addition, Kyle Lohse, allowed 12 in 19 2/3.
Youngster Wily Peralta allowed 12 in 25 1/3 and opponents plated nine earned runs and hit .307 off erstwhile ace Yovani Gallardo in 20 1/3 innings.
Marco Estrada was the silver lining in that cloudy spring, staying healthy and posting a 2.16 earned run average over 25 innings.
But, heading into Opening Day at Miller Park two weeks ago today, the starting five had allowed 54 runs on 129 hits and walked an additional 24 in just over 105 innings of work.
For a team that talked all winter about getting off to a "hot" start in the regular season, such numbers couldn’t have been terribly comforting.
Then games started for real, and the switch flipped – and the light has been burning brightly since.
Gallardo set the tone with six shutout innings against Atlanta to open the year. Lohse allowed three earned runs in seven innings which Garza followed by a dominating performance in eight innings of two-hit ball.
Estrada and Peralta then set the team up for a sweep in Boston by going five innings each in victories, and Garllardo brought out the broom by throwing 6 2/3 additional shutout innings.
The ball has continued to roll, as the Brewers have won nine straight and are off to their best start in nearly three decades.
"That’s the plan, to go as deep in the game as you can and get a win each time out," Gallardo said. "I think the starting five we have, we all have that mentality no matter what the situation is."
Through the first 12 games of the year, the pitching staff sported league best numbers in ERA (1.80), saves (5), hits (78), runs (29) and earned runs (22) allowed.
Not only was the starting staff on point in that opening stretch, but the relief corps of Francisco Rodriguez, Tyler Thornburg, Brandon Kintzler, Will Smith, Jim Henderson and Zach Duke was solid, too, allowing just three earned runs over 33 innings.
"For as a starting staff, we want to have the lead going late into the ballgame," Gallardo said. "When we have the lead it’s pretty much going to be a closed deal."
While such relative perfection isn’t going to last through the other 150 games of the year, it just goes to show how hard it is to truly predict what a team, or an individual, will do in any given year.
All you can do is go off of known history and assume that players in their prime, or near it, will perform up to their averages.
And aside from perhaps Peralta and Estrada, history was on the side of Gallardo, Lohse and Garza performing just like this. Garza won 15 games in the American League East in 2010, and was the 2008 American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player before pitching in a World Series for Tampa Bay.
Gallardo had gone 47-26 with a 3.67 ERA over a three-year period from 2010-12, made an All-Star team and has a career 2.08 postseason ERA in 26 innings.
Lohse went 41-21 with a 3.19 ERA from 2011 to '13 and has appeared in 13 postseason games, including the 2011 World Series with St. Louis.
Ron Roenicke said this about Gallardo after his start on Opening Day, but it could have been about Lohse or Garza as well: "I keep saying the guy knows how to win. And anytime you get a pitcher out there that understands the game, understand what he needs to do to win ballgames, it’s not always ERA, it’s how you pitch when you need to win ballgames and he knows how to do it."
The two "unproven" starters even had something to build on, as Peralta won 11 games last year and Estrada has a career 3.89 ERA as a starter.
As for the bullpen, even Roenicke and general manager Doug Melvin weren’t sure what would happen there. Consistent performance there can’t be counted on – see Axford, John – but the group assembled does have talent and a recent history of success.
I’ve been asked on several occasions if I "believe" in this pitching staff. I’m not quite sure what that means, other than that I think baseball gives you ample time to study trends, and history – so I’ll just I’ll "believe it until I see it."
What does that mean?
Well, a pretty good sample size of games says these pitchers will throw well all year long, and I’m inclined to believe that until I see otherwise.