On Monday night, the Brewers faced the reigning champion Houston Astros for the first of two exhibition games at Minute Maid Park. It was an odd pre-homecoming for the Astros, who were greeted by plenty of empty seats. That’s unlikely to be the case when they return for their home opener on April 2. For the Brewers, the game served as a nice tune-up against one of the best teams in the league.
The Milwaukee offense was quiet in the first inning, foretelling the rest of the game. Lorenzo Cain did have a nice at-bat to lead things off, working a full count before lining out sharply on the ninth pitch he saw from Lance McCullers, Jr. He finished the night without a hit, but made some sharp contact and threw in a nifty sliding catch. Cain will be a fun presence at the top of the lineup this season.
Brent Suter, fresh off the news that he’d cracked the active roster and would start the season’s third game in San Diego, took the ball for the Brewers in the bottom half. Suter mixed pitches well from the start, earning a pair of easy groundouts before yielding a single to Jose Altuve. He compensated for this by showing off a nifty pickoff move, nabbing the star second baseman trying to steal. The Astros star offense looked uncomfortable against Suter, especially towards the start of the game, as the soft-tossing lefty disrupted their timing with his quick, hunched delivery and oddly effective 85-mph fastballs.
The second time through the order was a bit tougher for Suter, as has often been the case. George Springer worked a full count to lead off the fourth inning before smacking a changeup into left for a single. Alex Bregman followed with a sharp groundball double to Christian Yelich to put runners on second and third with no outs. To his credit, Suter demonstrated considerable poise in rattling off ten consecutive four-seam fastballs to record three quick outs. Jose Altuve went down on strikes, Carlos Correa was retired on an RBI groundout, and Marwin Gonzalez waved through a high fastball to end the threat with Bregman on third.
Suter was similarly self-possessed in the next frame, when he coaxed a double play and a groundout after consecutive singles to start the inning. On the night, he pitched five innings on 69 pitches, allowing five hits and a run while striking out seven and walking none. It was an impressive performance against the world champs, and brought Suter’s spring ERA down to 4.57. If he can replicate that figure from the rotation this year, he’d be well on his way to one of the finest major league careers of any 31st-round draft pick (though Kevin Kiermaier probably has that distinction locked up).
In the midst of his performance, the Brewers managed to push a pair of runs across the board—some of the only ones allowed by McCullers all spring. Manny Piña led off the third inning with a single and Orlando Arcia beat out an infield hit two batters later. Cain grounded out to advance the runners to second and third, then Yelich scorched a liner to right for a two-run double and a brief 2-0 lead.
Jeremy Jeffress worked a fairly uneventful sixth inning (one hit, one strikeout), which ended with Domingo Santana tumbling into the seats to catch a fly ball. Josh Hader came on in the seventh, and encountered his first real trouble of the spring. Throwing nothing but fastballs and the occasional slider, Hader allowed consecutive singles before recording a pair of outs. He walked the fifth batter he faced to load the bases and was subsequently lifted from the game.
Quintin Torres-Costa, who represented the Brewers in the Arizona Fall League after an up-and-down season split between Carolina and Biloxi, came on in relief to face Houston super-prospect Kyle Tucker. Torres-Costa is an undersized lefty selected in the 35th round of the 2015 draft and has the makings of a solid left-handed specialist (he struck out 91 batters in 66 innings last year and held lefties to a .188/.313/.250 line, the elevated OBP a product of sometimes-shaky command). It’s been a rough spring for the prospect, though, and this was a lefty-lefty matchup he couldn’t win. After a high, 89-mph fastball caught enough of the zone for a called first strike, Tucker hammered a low and inside curveball over the right field wall for a grand slam. The Astros went ahead 5-2, and stayed their till the finish. The three runs charged to Hader were the first he’d allowed all spring; Torres-Costa, meanwhile, saw his ERA rise to 15.43. (He later struck out Houston prospect Jack Mayfield with some well-placed high heat to end the inning.) Torres-Costa will likely head back to Biloxi to star the year, where he’ll try to refine his command while keeping a funky, twisting delivery and low arm slot that allows his stuff to play up despite fringe velocity and inconsistent movement.
The Brewers made little noise the rest of the way; Orlando Arcia laced a loopy single to center in the top of the eighth to continue his nice spring, while Ji-Man Choi lined a Ken Giles slider for a base hit in the ninth. Choi looked impressive at the plate, laying off the first four pitches (which were all around the periphery of the strike zone) to go 2-2, then fouling off a slider and a tough, 98-mph fastball before getting his pitch to hit. Before Nick Franklin struck out to end the game, Choi also took second, and then third base on defensive indifference. The defenders in question were validated in their ambivalence one pitch later, but it was nice to see some low-risk, heads-up base running that could have made for a more interesting game had Franklin managed to collect a base hit.
On the pitching side, Corey Knebel overwhelmed a trio of advanced Houston prospects (as he should), needing just ten pitches to record two Ks and a lineout. Eight of his pitches were fastballs, and he topped out at 96.5 mph.
Overall, the game was about as instructive as any late-spring exhibition could be. Ryan Braun started at first and looked all right, though he was never really tested. The pitching staff did their job, for the most part. The offense played a little small ball and made a few loud outs on a pretty underwhelming night; they’ll usually be better, and occasionally worse. Perhaps the most exciting takeaway from the evening was this: The Brewers played nine innings in a major league stadium, against a major league team. We’re not far from baseball now.
Photo Credit: Troy Taormina, USAToday Sports Images