CINCINNATI -- Last Tuesday against the Reds, Brewers manager Craig Counsell saw an “angry fastball” from Brandon Woodruff.
This time out against the Reds, Woodruff was just plain angry.
The Brewers’ All-Star workhorse has an ERA flirting with six -- 5.97, to be precise -- through his first six starts after getting hit around in a five-run fifth inning of a 10-5 loss on Monday at Great American Ball Park in which Milwaukee’s pitchers tied season highs for runs and hits allowed.
“Look, I’m a grown-up,” Woodruff said. “This game’s hard. So when it beats you down, and am I going to let it beat me down? No. …
“I’m not happy. Not supposed to be happy. I need to get better at some stuff, and there’ll come a time where I’ll hit a stretch and I’ll look back at this and learn from it.”
The good news for the Brewers is that their pitchers entered Monday leading the Majors in strikeout rate and fWAR, ranked fourth in FIP and sixth in ERA -- all with two of their top pitchers, Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, sitting on ERAs north of 5.00. Peralta will carry a 5.09 ERA into Tuesday’s scheduled start against the Reds, who are 6-23 thanks to their first back-to-back wins this season.
Both history and a look beyond this year’s surface stats suggest that both pitchers will be just fine. Excluding his debut season in 2017 in which he made his first eight Major League appearances, Woodruff has never had an ERA above 3.62. His .342 opponents’ batting average on balls in play this season is 16th highest of 132 pitchers who have worked at least 20 innings, suggesting moments of bad luck. Woodruff’s 29.4% strikeout rate is right in line with last year’s 28.8%.
And there have been good days. After a rough debut against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, Woodruff allowed just four hits over 11 innings in consecutive scoreless starts against the Cardinals and Pirates. Over his last three starts since then -- against the Pirates, Reds and Reds again -- Woodruff has surrendered 13 runs (12 earned) on 19 hits in 14 innings.
“I kind of have the bug of letting the big inning get to me,” Woodruff said. “I don’t quite have the answers. Physically I feel good. I’m good for an outing, bad for an outing, good for an outing -- that’s not how I want to do it. You want to be consistent, and I haven’t been consistent so far. I can draw some positives, but there’s not many.”
Two differences stood out when comparing Woodruff’s consecutive starts against the Reds, one last week in Milwaukee in which he logged 12 strikeouts and allowed three earned runs on four hits in 5 2/3 innings of a 6-3 Brewers win, and another on Monday night in Cincinnati in which he allowed six runs (five earned) on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings.
One, Woodruff’s two-seam fastball was flatter in the second outing. Two, the Reds did a good job, Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, of laying off Woodruff’s offspeed pitches out of the zone, denying him the putaway pitch.
That was evident in the bottom of the fifth, which started with Woodruff and the Brewers holding a 3-1 lead. Albert Almora Jr. led off with a double over third base before Woodruff walked No. 9 hitter Matt Reynolds on a full-count changeup in the dirt. TJ Friedl made it 3-2 with a two-strike double, and Brandon Drury gave Cincinnati a 5-3 lead with a two-strike, three-run home run on a fastball above the zone. A single and a strikeout later, Woodruff was out of the game with only one out in the inning.
“I want to win so bad, and I can’t stand when our team gives me the lead and I give it right back up,” he said.
Said catcher Omar Narváez: "It's always good when these things happen early in the season; we have a lot of time to work. He's hard-working. I have no doubts that next outing, he will be just fine."
Woodruff was asked whether he’s been effective at harnessing frustration in the past.
“I could say a lot of different things, but I try to keep it pretty cordial,” Woodruff said. “I could get nasty, but what’s that going to do? So I try to look at the bright side and know that I’m a pretty good pitcher and I’ve done it before, so you can kind of lean on that. Confidence is not an issue; it’s just, I’ve got to execute.”
He added: “I know my abilities, and I’m just not doing it right now. I just kind of stink.”