Friday proved to be a very difficult day for the Brewers. In the afternoon, the team announced that left-hander Chris Narveson has a torn rotator cuff, so he was placed on the 15-day DL by the club and will await further examination to determine the extent of the damage.
Then, in the evening, the Brewers lost a one-run heartbreaker to the Colorado Rockies. John Axford surrendered the game-winning run in the top of the ninth inning, an RBI single up the middle by pinch-hitter Michael Cuddyer. That RBI single was set up by a bloop single off the bat of Jason Giambi, a bloop single that seemingly floated in the air for five minutes before harmlessly falling to the ground in shallow left field.
No one expected Axford to replicate his sterling 2011 campaign. The struggles that he displayed on Friday evening, though, have become far too common in the first two weeks of the season. His curveball is hanging up in the zone too often. He may need to begin relying on his slider a bit more often against right-handed pitchers because his slider has been much tighter and more effective than his curveball.
Too early to press the panic button on Axford, however. The fastball continues to pop the catcher’s mitt at 95-96 MPH. He simply needs to find his release point on his curveball. Either that, or as stated above, he may need to tinker with his slider more often.
After Colorado pushed the go-ahead run across the plate in the top of the ninth, the Rockies brought their closer Rafael Betancourt into the game to close out the contest. He took over the closer’s role for the club after they traded Huston Street to San Diego over the winter. Last season, the right-hander was tremendous, compiling a 2.89 ERA (2.53 FIP) over 62.1 innings.
On Friday, however, Betancourt was anything but dominating. The Rockies’ closer secured the victory for his club and kept the Brewers off the scoreboard, but his location was shaky for the majority of the inning. He left his fastball over the heart of the plate quite often. The Brewers were simply unable to take advantage of his mistakes throughout the inning, save for an opposite-field double by Mat Gamel with one out in the inning.
Here are the pitch locations from Betancourt in the bottom of the ninth:
Depending on your classifications of what consists of “the center” of the plate, Betancourt threw at least seven fastballs down the center at various heights. Corey Hart missed two center-cut fastballs in his at-bat to leadoff the inning. Alex Gonzalez missed a couple fastballs down the middle, as well, including one that wasted a huge jump that Carlos Gomez (who pinch-ran for Gamel) had when trying to swipe third base. Jonathan Lucroy also missed a fastball that cut the plate in half.
Again, baseball games are not won or lost in one inning. The Brewers wasted potential runs earlier in the game — as did the Rockies on multiple occasions — but prime opportunities in the bottom of the ninth inning always loom larger than others.
The Brewers were the best fastball-hitting team in the National League last season, according to FanGraphs. This year, however, they rank in the middle of the pack. The loss of Prince Fielder cannot be blamed as the sole culprit for that decrease in productivity against fastballs. Instead, it likely has much more to do with the slow starts from Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks, and Ryan Braun. Those three pitchers can turn around significant velocity at the plate, and the trio of hitters have been largely silent thus far, only hitting a combined .207 on the season after Friday night’s loss.
Things will improve at the plate. The trio of hitters named above are too talented and have too much of a track record to struggle for too long. On Friday, though, the Brewers were unable to capitalize on mistakes and were unable to punish the grooved fastball. That ultimately cost them a home victory and a return to .500 on the season.