Keeping warm in the visitor’s clubhouse at Wrigley Field on a cold April evening, Brandon Kintzler watched his teammates from a different viewpoint than usual – on television.
Wily Peralta was on the mound for the Milwaukee Brewers on April 9 against the Chicago Cubs, making his second start after a rocky season debut six days before against Colorado, and members of the Brewers bullpen started the game inside to stay warm.
Despite the conditions, the 22-year-old had found something that night against the Cubs.
"We’re inside because it was cold and you see you a lot of stuff on TV and you’re just like 'that is freakin’ nasty,'" Kintzler said of Peralta that night. "I felt like we were winning 10-0 it was going that bad."
Peralta allowed just two earned runs and struck out five in 6 2/3 innings that night, and it was a rare instance where one major leaguer makes another take pause.
"I just thought they had no shot against him," Kintzler said. "A lot of times you don’t see that happen. I thought he could throw one pitch all day, his stuff was that good. You’re not going to see it a lot, but when it does it definitely catches your eye. A lot of those guys can still hit it, now when he puts it where he wants, now we’re getting impressed."
Unfortunately, Peralta’s next start against the San Francisco Giants was more like his first, as the big right-hander gave up five earned runs in just four innings, walking three while striking out one.
Such is life with a rookie pitcher in the major leagues.
"Sometimes you go with younger players to find out what they can do," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "That’s the only way to find out what they can do, is to give them the ball and be patient. Sometimes you’ve got to bite your knuckles when you have some bad games but you’ve got to give them the ball."
Peralta has been given the opportunity to show what he can do at the major league level this season after an impressive end to the 2012 campaign in which made five starts in September, recorded a 2.25 ERA while striking out 22 and walking 11 in 28 innings.
The highlight was an 8-inning, 2-hit performance in a 3-0 Brewers win over the New York Mets, a start that opened the eyes of manager Ron Roenicke.
"That’s as a good as a game as I’ve seen in the big leagues," said Roenicke, who played for eight years before getting into coaching. "The stuff, command, so he has that capability of being an elite, top line pitcher, whether he’s a one or a two, we’ll see. He has those capabilities just because of the stuff he has."
That stuff is what players like Kintzler and catcher Martin Maldonado first noticed when he was Peralta’s teammate in the Brewers minor leagues and now in Milwaukee.
"You’ve got a guy throwing 96, 97 and the way it sinks – can’t teach that," Maldonado said. "You are born having that."
It’s also what has impressed new teammates.
"I knew coming in he was a big fastball guy, but his movement is also the thing," reliever Burke Badenhop said. "Being a movement and sinker-type guy, man, do I wish I had (that). He was throwing pitches the other day that were moving and darting and sinking like changeups at 96 miles an hour. To get a fastball that’s almost bouncing and (get) a guy to swing and miss at it? You know that’s some pretty nasty stuff."
That movement is also Peralta’s own worst enemy at this point, and has been since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2008. He struggled with his command for the majority of the season in the minors last year before finding it in once he was called up. So far this season, he has been uneven in seven starts, shutting down the Cubs twice and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He has struggled against the Rockies and Giants.
"Now it depends on how he develops mentally, how he’s able to repeat pitches," Roenicke said of Peralta’s maturation process. "I expect him to because he’s a very good athlete. If he wasn’t a good athlete I wouldn’t have the expectations I do for him, but because of that I expect this guy to continue to grow. I know he’s going to have some tough times – everybody goes through it, especially when they’re young – but when you talk about ceilings this is a guy who certainly has a very high one."
Peralta took another step along that learning curve in his last start against the St. Louis Cardinals. His line was unimpressive as he gave up six runs and 11 hits in 4 1/3 innings, but all six of those runs came in the third inning and the majority came across thanks to broken bat and seeing-eye singles.
Roenicke ran him out there the next inning, and Peralta worked a near flawless fourth.
"It made me comfortable that after that situation, a big inning, that he lets you go out there," Peralta said. "It makes me feel like he trusts in me and it I feel pretty good about the way he handled it.
"That’s part of the experience, those days you have to try to calm down yourself and try to make one pitch at a time so I didn’t try to go too crazy out there. That’s part of the experience."
Peralta feels his mechanics are improving, and that it’s just a matter of executing a pitch when and where he needs to – such as throwing a slider for a strike, or bouncing one out of the zone if need be. But right now, it’s impossible for even his catcher to know when he’ll be able to do that.
"Sometimes he can be good in the bullpen and then so-so in the game, or he can be bad in the bullpen and be nasty in the games. It’s tough to say," Maldonado said. "He’s got the stuff to be nasty every day. He’s that kind of guy, with that power stuff that he has. It’s fun to be back there when he’s on."
Tuesday was another example of how special he can be. Against the American League West-leading Texas Rangers. Peralta neutralized the sixth best hitting lineup in the AL over five innings (one run on two hits) before two additional runs (one earned) came across in a nail-biting sixth in which he left two more runners on in a 35-pitch inning.
It’s another step in the process, and though it remains a somewhat uneven one in the present, only sets him up for the good down the line.
"He knows what he has to do – what he has to do is execute pitches, attack, get ahead – stuff like every starting pitcher has to do," Maldonado said. "He can be as good as anybody in this game when he has his stuff going. I know he’s good and he’s a fun guy to watch."
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.