Woodruff picks up ... even better than he left off?

In return from IL, righty K's 10, lights up radar gun

June 29th, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- After missing a month due to injury, Brewers right-hander couldn’t have imagined a better outing.

Woodruff threw five mostly-dominant innings Tuesday night, walking none and striking out 10. He got the win when Andrew McCutchen’s two-run homer sparked a four-run sixth inning, leading the Brewers to a 5-3 victory against the Rays at Tropicana Field.

The Brewers maintained their half-game lead over the Cardinals in the National League Central.

“He pitched wonderfully,’’ Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “The fastball was very, very good -- overpowering for most of the game. It was fun to watch. The no walks was certainly impressive, for sure. But he had a great fastball. There’s a reason why hitters talk about his fastball. We saw it tonight.’’

Woodruff (6-3) last pitched May 27 at St. Louis, when he departed with right ankle discomfort and landed on the injured list. He later was diagnosed with Raynaud’s Syndrome, which affects the feel on his pitching fingers. Woodruff said warmer temperatures usually help -- 88 degrees outside, 72 inside The Trop -- so there were no issues in his return. Indeed, Woodruff threw his four hardest pitches of the season in the win, topping out at 99.2 mph.

Woodruff retired the first nine Rays he faced, collecting seven strikeouts his first time through the order. He was touched for a run in the fourth when he allowed his only two hits -- a leadoff double by Yandy Díaz, then a two-out RBI single by Randy Arozarena, who smashed it past a leaping Kolten Wong at second base.

Rays starter Shane Baz was equally masterful through 5 2/3 innings, allowing just three hits. But in the bottom of the sixth, when Rays manager Kevin Cash turned to right-hander Matt Wisler, known for throwing a proliferation of sliders, the Brewers teed off.

McCutchen, with Christian Yelich on first base after a leadoff single, took a strike, then deposited a slider that didn't slide 354 feet down the left-field line for a two-run homer, giving the Brewers a 2-1 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Wong followed with a double, then Luis Urías belted a two-run homer of his own.

Wisler had entered with a 1-0 lead.

Eight pitches later, the Brewers led 4-1.

When Wisler came in, the Brewers knew what to look for: Their scouting reports said he relied on the slider. “The numbers kind of hit you in the face,’’ Counsell said. Indeed, according to Statcast, a staggering 92% of Wisler's pitches this season have been sliders. Brewers hitting coach Ozzie Timmons, formerly the Rays’ first-base coach, told his players to watch for the pitch.

“I went up there with a game plan, he gave me a pitch to hit and I did some damage with it,’’ said McCutchen, a native of nearby Fort Meade, who homered at The Trop for the fourth time in his career.

Despite his homer, McCutchen said most of the damage against the Rays was done by Woodruff.

“He looked amazing,’’ McCutchen said. “He didn’t miss a beat. He looked just as strong as he did when he went on the IL. He was fast and efficient, doing what he does best.’’

Woodruff was hoping for a good performance, knowing that he had gained confidence mechanically the night he got hurt in St. Louis. He took his bullpens and rehabilitation starts seriously. And he thought back to 2019, when he missed nearly two months due to an oblique injury, and realized he came back strong then as well.

“I leaned on that experience,’’ Woodruff said. “You never want to miss time, but when I came to start throwing again, I knew that every pitch counts. It’s the old cliche, ‘Take it one pitch at a time.’

“Once you get here [from a rehab outing to a Major League start], it’s different. The game kind of turns up a bit. You just have to try to make your pitches and be consistent with mechanics.’’

The Brewers got an eighth-inning insurance run on Urías’ RBI double, then left it for closer Josh Hader, who struck out the side in the ninth inning to pick up his 23rd save.