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Woodruff stellar in return as Crew catches Cubs

Brewers pull even in Wild Card standings as rotation gets boost
@AdamMcCalvy
September 18, 2019

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers added an All-Star starting pitcher to the postseason chase on Tuesday night, and Brandon Woodruff looked ready. Woodruff’s first pitch after nearly two months on the injured list with a left oblique strain was a 97 mph fastball. His second pitch was 98 mph. And two

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers added an All-Star starting pitcher to the postseason chase on Tuesday night, and Brandon Woodruff looked ready.

Woodruff’s first pitch after nearly two months on the injured list with a left oblique strain was a 97 mph fastball. His second pitch was 98 mph. And two pitches after that, the right-hander touched 99 mph on the way to the first of his four strikeouts in two hitless innings of Milwaukee’s 3-1 win over the Padres at Miller Park.

Lorenzo Cain homered leading off the third inning and Mike Moustakas snapped a 1-1 tie with a home run leading off the seventh for the Brewers, who have victories in 11 of their last 12 games and 14 of 17 to keep the heat on the Cardinals and Cubs, who each lost Monday.

Box score

The Cardinals’ lead in the National League Central is down to two games over the Brewers and Cubs, who are tied for the NL’s second Wild Card spot at 82-69. The Brewers and Cubs are each 1 1/2 games behind the Nationals, who hold the top Wild Card spot.

“It’s all about getting hot at the right time,” Woodruff said, “and, hopefully, we’re doing that here closing out September.”

The originally scheduled starter, left-hander Gio Gonzalez, took over at the start of the third inning for his first relief appearance in a decade after Woodruff threw 37 pitches, 23 for strikes, in his first game of any kind since July 21. The only hitters he had faced since then were teammates. Woodruff threw a couple of simulated innings last week at Marlins Park in his next-to-last tuneup for his return.

“Just getting him back on the mound was the big thing,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said before Woodruff’s return to action. “It was the type of injury where you can’t throw with intent for quite a while. I think we’re still building that back up. We didn’t get the mound time that you ideally would like to have, but, look, we’re in September. We need to get him going. He’s ready to get going. So we’ll do it.

“The goal is to put him in a good place going into October. A place where he can have a great October. I think that’s possible.”

And after Counsell saw the results?

“I think that’s exactly what we were hoping to see -- and really expecting to see,” Counsell said.

It’s unconventional. Typically, a pitcher would be eased back into game action, either via Minor League rehab starts or innings here and there in lopsided games. For Woodruff, the Minor League season is over, and there’s no time to wait for lopsided games in the big leagues.

The idea, Counsell said, is to build Woodruff’s pitch count in two remaining regular-season starts. Assuming that progression mimics how pitchers prepare in Spring Training, Woodruff could add 15-20 pitches per outing, and be somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 pitches by the end of the month. Should the Brewers earn the right to play into October, that’s plenty of leash to factor in a postseason pitching rotation.

“It feels, in a way, like a brand-new season, the butterflies and stuff,” Woodruff said.

Yes, he stole a peek at the radar gun.

“You know, maybe the first one. Just to see what the first pitch was,” Woodruff said. “But after that, no, not really. I tried to get in there and focus on making pitches. After that first pitch, I was pretty much ready to go. ‘OK, the velo’s there. I can get it going.’”

Woodruff was in the middle of a breakout season before he got hurt. He entered Tuesday 11-3 with a 3.75 ERA in his first 20 starts, and the team entered the day 16-4 when he takes the mound.

Gonzalez, Brent Suter, Matt Albers and Drew Pomeranz made it 17-4 behind Woodruff by covering the final 21 outs. Only Albers allowed a run -- on Hunter Renfroe’s seventh-inning homer -- but Albers stopped the damage there and Moustakas reclaimed the lead immediately after the seventh-inning stretch.

While he was waiting in the bullpen to get loose, Gonzalez looked up and saw the velocities that Woodruff was putting on the scoreboard.

“It’s hard not to see that,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what we talk about -- coming out with electricity, starting the game off right. When you can get your horse back in the race, it brings a jolt of lightning to us and gives us that excitement we were looking for.”

Last year’s Brewers were counted out of the division race at the start of September, but they wound up with the NL’s best record after beating the Cubs in a Game 163. Is their current run conjuring memories of last year’s sprint to the finish?

“Let’s get there first, and I’ll give you an answer,” Gonzalez said. “I think we’re right where we want to be, as far as mentality. We’re playing as a team.”

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.