1. A playing card with a single spot on it, ranked as the highest card in its suit in most card games: the ace of diamonds
2. informal a person who excels at a particular sport or other activity: a motorcycle ace
It’s an important word in the baseball lexicon. It’s more symbolic than tangible, of course. Throughout 162 games spread over six months, any one pitcher can start an important game at any point, depending on the circumstances surrounding that day. But, there’s something to be being designated the "ace" of a team at the start of a season.
You’re the man. You’re the one given the ball on Opening Day, charged with getting the team’s season off to a good start. More importantly, there’s a feeling associated with the word, a feeling that can become tactile. A baseball team feels they are going to win that day, as long as they get just one run.
This, for the first time, is the territory Yovani Gallardo is now squarely planted in.
It’s a role he’s embraced.
"Yeah, of course," Gallardo said. "Who wouldn’t? It’s one of those things I think anybody would at some point in their career."
There was no doubt a feeling that Gallardo would one day be the ace of the Brewers staff when he debuted as a 21-year-old in 2007. Just three years out of high school, he won nine games in 17 starts behind All-Star Ben Sheets.
In 2008 Gallardo was magnificent in four starts, posting a 1.80 earned run average over 20 innings before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
As he rehabbed, the Brewers took off toward the wildcard and acquired CC Sabathia for the stretch run. Gallardo returned and regained his form, tossing four solid innings against Pittsburgh on Sept. 25. He then appeared in two games during the Brewers’ divisional round loss to Philadelphia, giving up three runs (all unearned) in seven total innings.
Sabathia and Sheets were gone at the start of 2009, but at 23 was Gallardo truly considered the ace of the staff? Hard to say, especially since some questions lingered about how recovered he was from the knee injury. He had a solid year, going 13-12 in 31 starts, but he did not reach 200 innings pitched.
What about 2010? In the spring, the team bought out Gallardo’s arbitration years and his first year of free agency with a five-year $30.1 million contract extension (with a $13 million team option in 2015). But Randy Wolf was also signed to a contract that paid him about $9 million annually after going 17-9 over his last 46 starts dating back to the middle of 2008.
As the year wore on and Gallardo earned his first All-Star nod, it was clear he was moving into that rarefied air as a pitching staff’s true front man.
Then, in the winter of 2010, the Brewers acquired Zack Greinke from the Kansas City Royals. They paid a hefty price too, but what they got was a bona fide, established No. 1 – a Cy Young winner who dominated American League hitters.
Throughout Gallardo’s career, there was always a veteran (Jeff Suppan, Braden Looper, Shaun Marcum, Wolf) to shoulder the load at the top of a rotation or an All-Star-caliber pitcher (Sheets, Greinke) clearly put at the front of the sled.
That has changed in 2013.
Gallardo has made 148 career starts – more than his potential staff-mates Chris Narveson (63), Marco Estrada (32), Mike Fiers (22), Mark Rogers (9) and Wily Peralta (5) combined. Gallardo has also topped 200 innings the last two years – a total neither of the other starters have sniffed in their careers.
"I’ve been here awhile now – I’ve seen Sheets, CC, Greinke, those guys just come in and out and here I am," Gallardo said. "Of the starters I might the oldest one here in the organization. It just means a little bit more responsibility, just gotta go out there, teach the guys, help them out whenever they need help and just take care of them basically."
Gallardo turns 27 at the end of February – which makes him younger than Narveson and Fiers and the same age as Rogers – but he is clearly the one not only his staff mates will look to – but the team.
With just one All-Star appearance and only one year in which he received Cy Young votes (seventh in 2011), the Brewers are no doubt looking for him to not just illicit the feeling created by the "ace" designation, but produce like one too.
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.