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Woodruff evokes CC in stifling Pirates

@AdamMcCalvy
July 29, 2020

Brandon Woodruff did his best CC Sabathia impersonation Wednesday night at PNC Park, and the Brewers banked their first series victory of 2020. Backed by home runs from Ben Gamel and Keston Hiura, not to mention spotless relief from David Phelps, Devin Williams and Josh Hader, Woodruff struck out 10

Brandon Woodruff did his best CC Sabathia impersonation Wednesday night at PNC Park, and the Brewers banked their first series victory of 2020.

Backed by home runs from Ben Gamel and Keston Hiura, not to mention spotless relief from David Phelps, Devin Williams and Josh Hader, Woodruff struck out 10 batters and retired 17 in a row during one dominant stretch of Milwaukee’s 3-0 win over the Pirates. A swinging bunt single by Pittsburgh’s second hitter of the night -- it left Philip Evans’ bat at a not-so-sizzling 60.9 mph, according to Statcast -- was the only thing between the Brewers and what would have been the second no-hitter in franchise history.

Box score

“Honestly, I did not even realize it until Phelps was just saying something about it,” said Woodruff. “And then I thought back to the play where it was the grounder. Maybe we can work on it and a little bit and see if we can get it changed [by the official scorer].”

Add that quip to the list of reasons this performance conjured memories of Aug. 31, 2008, when Sabathia authored the best performance ever by a Brewers pitcher at PNC Park. That outing went in the history books as a one-hit shutout, but some who were there maintain to this day that Sabathia pitched the second no-hitter in franchise history, only to be denied by an official scorer who ruled a base hit on Andy LaRoche’s swinging bunt single to the left side of the infield. The Brewers appealed to Major League Baseball to retroactively award Sabathia a no-hitter, to no avail.

On Wednesday, there was no such controversy; Evans had a clean hit.

"I had a perfect view for it,” said Gamel, who started in center field and gave Woodruff a lead by hitting a two-run homer over the right-field grandstand in the third inning. “You know, he was absolutely just mowing people down tonight. It was pretty uncompetitive, I felt like.”

Said Brewers manager Craig Counsell: “Overpowering, I think, is probably the word that best describes it.”

Woodruff’s first two starts of 2020 have been impressive. On Opening Day at Wrigley Field, when pitch count constraints limited him to five innings, the only Cubs runs against him came on one misplaced sinker that went for a two-run home run. Five days later, Woodruff was extended to 92 pitches and was even better.

• His 17 consecutive batters retired was a career high, besting the 15 straight he retired to open a May 26, 2016, win over the Phillies at Miller Park.

• Woodruff recorded 20 swings-and-misses total, with four different pitches. Eight whiffs came on changeups. That pitch was Woodruff’s focus in Spring Training and Summer Camp, and represented exactly 25 percent of his offerings on Wednesday against the lefty-heavy Pirates lineup (compared with 17.6 percent against the Cubs). Three of Woodruff’s strikeouts were completed with changeups.

• According to Statcast, Woodruff registered an 18.7 mph gap between his softest changeup (80.3 mph) and his hardest sinker (99 mph), keeping Pirates hitters swinging and missing. After Evans walked to lead off the seventh inning, Woodruff struck out Josh Bell with a 96.9 mph sinker before Counsell, who has made liberal use of his expanded bullpen, turned the game over to the relief corps.

“The only thing you can try to do is break his rhythm,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “We tried to do that. He stood out there, waited for us to get back in the box and threw strikes. … This is the first time even in games I’ve watched that I’ve seen somebody rushing it up there 96 to 98 [mph]. It was jumping out of his hand tonight."

That velocity, in turn, made Woodruff’s changeup even tougher to time.

He made no dramatic changes with that pitch from last season, when Woodruff went 11-3 and made the National League All-Star team for the first time. Rather, Woodruff figures he is hiding the pitch better after making a mental adjustment suggested by some of the sport’s changeup artists.

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“I'm always watching YouTube stuff and videos like that, but the one that kind of pops in my mind is I watch a lot of [Max] Scherzer's and [Stephen] Strasburg's changeups, and even Devin Williams -- his changeup is unbelievable,” Woodruff said. “I think a common theme with them, especially Scherzer, he mentioned he throws his changeup while thinking about throwing his thumb first. I've kind of been working on that in spring and then Summer Camp.”

The Brewers went 3-3 on their opening road trip. They’ll take Thursday off before their home opener Friday against the Cardinals at Miller Park.

“We’re ready to go back home,” Counsell said. “It’s a short homestand, and the season continues. And we’ll keep it going.”

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