Feel-good stories Topa, Bickford debut

September 2nd, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- Performance matters most, but Brewers manager Craig Counsell is also a sucker for good stories. Two of the team’s newest bullpen arms certainly can tell those.

Justin Topa, promoted to the Majors on Monday in the wake of the Trade Deadline, owes his resurgence to a stint in independent baseball and a well-timed tweet. , summoned Tuesday, overcame the 1-2-3 punch of a suspension for recreational drug use, a broken right hand and a dramatic drop in velocity. They know each other’s stories well, since they were road roommates at Class A Advanced Carolina just last year and talked about their trials along the way.

Now they are both big leaguers after each took their lumps on the same day in a 12-1 loss to the Tigers. Topa’s two innings were marred by one swing, a two-run home run for Detroit right fielder Victor Reyes as part of a four-hit, five-RBI night. Bickford followed and hit the first two batters he faced to start a four-run rally.

The ugly result capped a memorable day.

“Any ballplayer that plays for an extended period, or even just growing up around the game, wants to get that phone call,” said Topa, 29. “It’s a lot of excitement, lot of emotion -- especially calling the family and letting them know that after the ups and downs, the dream has come true.”

Said Bickford: “I don’t know if ‘doubt’ is the word, but there’s definitely times where a lot of players go through stuff in their career that they don’t necessarily want to go through, and when I learned to turn the negatives into positives and to learn from it, it helped me a lot in making me who I am today.”

Topa was approaching his 28th birthday in early 2019 and was without a job as many of his professional baseball friends began departing for Spring Training. He had been through two Tommy John surgeries, had been released in ‘17 and was “kind of over baseball” before he rediscovered a love for the game while pitching in ‘18 in Pomona, N.Y., for the Rockland Boulders of the independent Canadian-American Association, followed by a brief stint back in organized baseball with the Rangers.

One winter day in early ‘19 at the Maplezone Sports Institute outside Philadelphia, Topa faced some college hitters in live batting practice, complete with data documenting a power fastball and high-spin slider. Video of the session was posted on Twitter.

The initial tweet and others garnered retweets from Rob Friedman, the esteemed @PitchingNinja, which created some buzz among scouts and led to a Minor League deal with the Brewers. A year and a half later, here he is.

“This is a fun one for the organization,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “Our network of scouts did a tremendous job tracking him. They felt like there was more in the tank, and then Justin just took off.”

The same was true of Bickford, 25, the centerpiece of the trade that sent reliever Will Smith to San Francisco in 2016 when relievers were fetching huge returns. Bickford was suspended for the first 50 games of ‘17 after a second positive test for a drug of abuse, then broke his throwing hand on a comebacker during the suspension and subsequently struggled with velocity issues.

While not a member of big league camp, Bickford did pitch four scoreless outings for the Brewers in Cactus League play before Spring Training was suspended, with a fastball in the 93 mph range. Last year at Carolina, he didn’t allow a run in his final 14 appearances spanning 26 innings out of the bullpen, with 39 strikeouts.

“As David and I were talking about this yesterday, this is a really cool day for a lot of people in our player development world,” Counsell said. “Coaches, trainers. A lot of people played a part in this.”

Last call
• Bickford arrived Tuesday amid a flurry of transactions. The Brewers placed infielder on the bereavement list following the death of his grandfather and optioned right-hander Trey Supak back to the alternate training site in Appleton, Wis., after only one day with the big league club. In the place of Gyorko and Supak, Milwaukee called up Bickford along with outfielder from Appleton.

“Tyrone Taylor has been the best position player there,” Counsell said. “Really, since Day One it’s been almost universal from players and staff.”

• Why hasn’t , a member of the Brewers’ Opening Day roster, been one of the relievers summoned back to Milwaukee? He has been dealing with a right arm injury, Counsell said, that could sideline Wahl for the remainder of the regular season.

• Catcher underwent successful surgery Monday morning to repair the torn meniscus in his right knee. The surgery was performed in Milwaukee by Dr. William Raasch. Piña is expected to be sidelined for the remainder of the regular season.

• Kyler Alise Woodruff arrived a bit ahead of schedule on Monday night, the Brewers reported. and his wife, Jonie, welcomed their first child, a daughter, after the right-hander traveled home to Mississippi on Monday to attend the birth. He is expected to rejoin the team to make his next start as scheduled in this weekend’s series against Cleveland.