CHICAGO -- Brandon Woodruff threw 40 pitches in his first inning of 2022 and got three swings and misses. Seventeen pitches in, he’d thrown only five strikes and drawn two mound visits. Twenty-six pitches in, there was still nobody out. When Woodruff finally escaped the inning, the Brewers faced a three-run deficit.
After a shortened Spring Training in which Woodruff said the results didn’t match how good he felt, the results continued to elude him in a 9-0 loss to the Cubs on Saturday at Wrigley Field that dropped the Brewers to 0-2.
“I know this sucks,” Woodruff said. “We've gotten our brains beat in the first two, but it's a long, long season. Hopefully that was the worst one of the year.”
Even after rebounding with a seven-pitch second inning, Woodruff was out of the game before the end of the fourth and was charged with seven earned runs on six hits with three walks, two strikeouts and one hit batsman while throwing 89 pitches for 11 outs. The seven earned runs -- a figure inflated by José Ureña’s own wildness in his Brewers debut -- matched Woodruff’s career high from a May 2018 start at Coors Field.
That, after Woodruff went 0-3 with a 10.80 ERA and surrendered six home runs in 11 2/3 innings in the Cactus League.
This is not the Woodruff the Brewers expect to see this season, not after he helped push teammate Corbin Burnes to the National League Cy Young Award by delivering a season of his own worthy of consideration. Woodruff was fourth in the NL last season with a 2.56 ERA, tied for fourth with 20 quality starts, and was third with a 0.96 WHIP and a .200 opponents’ average.
It continued a steady rise for a player selected by the Brewers in the 11th round of the 2014 Draft. While many Major Leaguers -- including Burnes -- encounter turbulence in their development, Woodruff’s trajectory has mostly been smooth. Brewers Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2016. Major League debut in ‘17. Postseason star in ‘18. NL All-Star in ‘19. Opening Day starter in ‘20 and again in ‘21, when he finished fifth in NL Cy Young Award balloting.
In each of the past two seasons, Woodruff led the Brewers in starts and innings pitched.
“He’s a very clear thinker, and I think that allows him to just be steady,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He doesn’t fall into traps that a lot of us do, because he’s a very clear thinker. It’s a real compliment to him and helps him get a little bit better every year.”
Counsell was asked to clarify “clear thinker” as it relates to pitching.
“It’s as simple as when you point yourself in a direction, that’s where you’re going,” he said. “No second thoughts. It’s commitment, it’s conviction to what you do. It’s kind of not letting the noise distract you. I think Brandon’s very good at it.”
Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns also pointed to Woodruff’s steady buildup of velocity, with incremental improvement from 2017 to ‘18, then ‘18 to ‘19 and ‘19 to ‘20 before he settled in at about 96.3 mph with his sinker and 96.6 mph with his four-seam fastball.
Against the Cubs, Woodruff topped out at 97.1 mph and was about half a mph down from last year’s averages on both his two-seam and four-seam fastballs. That reflects the cold conditions and a shortened spring in which Woodruff and the rest of Milwaukee’s starters were denied at least one exhibition start.
“I don't want to put anything on the shortened Spring Training,” Woodruff said. “Warming up before the game, I felt great.”
Once he took the mound, that changed quickly. Like Burnes on Opening Day, Woodruff walked the Cubs’ leadoff man. Then he hit Nick Madrigal. Then he walked Willson Contreras and Ian Happ, forcing in a run. Woodruff’s early assessment was that he was being too quick in his delivery.
“That's probably some of the worst locating I've done that I can remember,” he said.
He wasn’t the only pitcher who had command trouble. His replacement, Ureña, walked in a run and threw a run-scoring wild pitch for two Cubs runs that were charged to Woodruff. And Woodruff and Trevor Gott combined to hit three Cubs batters, leading to a benches-clearing kerfuffle in the eighth after Milwaukee’s Andrew McCutchen was hit in retaliation.
After being shut out on four hits, the Brewers have gone 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position while losing their first two games.
"It is part of the game,” McCutchen said. “I hate to say that. But it is what happens. We are too good of a team to let this bother us. It's two games. Just as quick as you can lose two, you can win two. Show up tomorrow and be ready to go.”