Leaning on two bats following a session in the batting cage during the Milwaukee Brewers last homestand at Miller Park, starting pitcher Marco Estrada took a breath and looked back at his fellow starters file off the field. It's a group that has swollen with the addition of Tyler Thornburg and Johnny Hellweg to the rotation.
The additional arms meant Estrada, counted on as a top half of the rotation arm coming out of spring training, has had to wait 10 days between his last start on Aug. 31 against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and his next on Wednesday in St. Louis.
It’s not an ideal position to be in – manager Ron Roenicke is doing what he can to make sure Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Wily Peralta make their appearances on regular rest. In order to give the "young guys" looks, someone’s innings have to be sacrificed, and the aforementioned troika is without question the Brewers top three pitchers going into 2014.
So where does that leave Estrada, who struggled through his first 12 starts (4-4, 5.32 ERA, 62 K’s, 69.1 innings and a league-high 14 home runs allowed) before injuries put him on the disabled list for essentially two months?
"Even if I didn’t miss those two months I’d still be proving," the 30-year-old right-hander said. "I always try to compete. I don’t slack off. I always feel like I need to show something, prove to these guys that I can pitch for them. Obviously it sucks that I missed two months to begin with and now we’re having this where you only get four outings the last month so I’ve got to take each one – not like I don’t take ‘em serious – but I’m sure I’m in the same spot a lot of these other guys are that are competing for a spot next year. I feel like I’m one of those guys so I’m competing myself."
Like Gallardo and former teammate John Axford, Estrada pitched in the World Baseball Classic in the spring and then never recaptured the form of 2011 and 2012 when he was one of the more effective, and valuable, arms the Brewers had.
During the Brewers National League Championship Series run two years ago, he went 3-2 with a 3.70 ERA and 1.089 WHIP in seven spot starts while opponents hit just .235 off of him.
In 23 starts last year he was a hard luck 5-7, but posted a 3.76 ERA, struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings and limited opponents to a .252 average. He pitched especially well down the stretch, allowing just 20 earned runs in his final 11 starts (63 2/3 innings) while striking out 62.
Last year, he was one of the arms given a chance to prove his worth in the team’s final months, which has given this August and September a different feel for the sixth-year pitcher.
"There’s a couple of us that they need to see," he said. "It’s not the same as last year. Last year I think we only had five guys and basically they were only looking at Wily at the end of the month. That was basically it. This year there’s more guys. It’s just part of it. You just gotta keep doing your work, working hard, keep throwing bullpens and just staying in shape, keep the arm going and hopefully on the day you start it all comes back. It’s only 10 days. It’s not a big deal. I’m kind of used to those days. I’ve gotten more than five days before starts. This might be good for me."
In his five starts since coming off the disabled list, he has a 2.61 ERA over 31 innings while allowing just four home runs.
"I feel better than I did the first half, to be honest with you," he said. "I like I’m able to locate a little better. I’m throwing strikes."
Estrada has lived on both sides of a pitching staff his entire career, coming out of the bullpen in relief 62 times while making 49 starts (through Monday), so he knows how to prepare himself for long rest between starts.
And, he knows how to prepare for the pressures that come with having to prove yourself over and again.
"It’s not new to me," he said. "It’s not new to me – I know what to expect. There’s always pressure. You want to stay here. You want to keep your job. I guess I don’t really think about it because I know what to expect. I guess I don’t think about it too much. I just try to go out and do my job when it’s my turn to take the ball. That’s about it."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.