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When thunder meets lightning: Woodruff K's Yeli

@AdamMcCalvy
July 10, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- If Hollywood at some future date decides to put the 2020 Major League Baseball season to film, we’ve got a suggestion for the opening scene. It was Thursday at Miller Park. The Brewers’ best starter and presumptive pick for Opening Day, Brandon Woodruff, faced one of baseball’s best

MILWAUKEE -- If Hollywood at some future date decides to put the 2020 Major League Baseball season to film, we’ve got a suggestion for the opening scene.

It was Thursday at Miller Park. The Brewers’ best starter and presumptive pick for Opening Day, Brandon Woodruff, faced one of baseball’s best hitters, Christian Yelich. It was just a scrimmage in a stadium that was silent aside from the rain pounding the roof. It seemed Mother Nature was amped, however. As Yelich dug into the batter’s box in the middle of the extended at-bat, a bolt of lightning struck nearby, and a monstrous thunderclap shook the empty seats.

Manager Craig Counsell called it “a moment.”

“Woody made some great pitches, and Yelich hit some great foul balls -- which you don’t say very often, but he did,” Counsell said. “Then the lightning struck in the outfield, and you think of the movie. For an intrasquad game on Day 2 of this whole thing, it was definitely the moment of the day.”

The movie in question was "The Natural," but instead of Yelich channeling his inner Roy Hobbs and smashing a home run into the lights, it was Woodruff who won this battle. After pumping some fastballs past Yelich early in the at-bat and then getting a taste of Yelich’s knack for laying off tough sliders, Woodruff struck him out swinging on a changeup.

Woodruff has been working intently on that pitch, and he’d been looking forward to matchups like this one against Yelich. Woodruff struck out Yelich both times, though he admitted he probably got some help in the first at-bat on a called strike three from catching coordinator-turned-Summer Camp umpire Charlie Greene. Yelich had some playful words as he sulked back to the dugout.

“We were joking earlier that morning when we were both in the weight room at the same time,” Woodruff said. "Yeli was like, ‘Well, we get to battle today. Let’s see what we’ve got.’ When he stepped in, it was like, 'OK, here we go.'”

At first base, Justin Smoak was rooting against a Yelich line drive at his face.

Woodruff helped make sure that didn’t happen.

“It’s early in this ‘2.0’, but Woodruff was saying that every slider he threw, Yeli spit on it,” Smoak said. “He had no intentions of swinging at them. When you have players like that going against each other, it’s pretty cool to watch.”

What are Smoak’s early impressions of Woodruff?

“That 96-97 [mph] comes out pretty easy,” he said. “He’s got the stuff to be The Man.”

Woodruff was developing into just that last season, when he went 11-3 with a 3.62 ERA and made his first All-Star team. He missed two months from late July to mid-September due to a strained left oblique but managed to lead the Brewers in strikeouts and quality starts, and the team went 18-4 with him on the mound. Woodruff was an easy pick to start the National League Wild Card Game at Washington, and he delivered four good innings before departing in the fifth with a lead, only to see it slip away from fellow All-Star Josh Hader late.

The 2020 season was supposed to be Woodruff’s opportunity to see what he could do with 30-plus starts. But the coronavirus pandemic dashed those plans, leaving him -- and other top starters -- to do their best with the 10 to 12 trips to the mound they'll get over a 60-game regular season.

“For me, I feel like I've always been a little bit of a slow starter in a way,” Woodruff said. “I think I've done a good job of preparing myself to be ready to hit the ground running once the games start. … You can't focus on 'I only have this many starts.’ You have to go out and focus every single pitch and the work you have to do between each start.”

Counsell has yet to name his pick to pitch Opening Day, but common sense and the calendar suggest it’s Woodruff. His start on Thursday was 15 days out from July 24 at Wrigley Field, meaning if Woodruff pitches every fifth day, he’ll take the mound against the Cubs in the opener.

“The goal [on Thursday] was to get him up and down for five innings, and so we controlled the pitches,” Counsell said. “We got there, and I thought he got better as the outing went along. That’s exactly what you want to see. …

“He’s getting a little bit better every time we see him. It’s been a very even progression to me. It’s been the way it’s supposed to happen, the way you want it to happen.”

The development of Woodruff’s changeup is what gives Counsell optimism that there remains room to grow. Woodruff has honed that pitch to the point “it’s in his back pocket whenever he needs it.”

Just like he did against Yelich.

“The Yelich at-bat helped him, right? It just helped him get competitive,” Counsell said. “Sometimes in these outings, it’s hard to get [amped up], because we manipulated the outings and the outs and sometimes the runners. But matchups like that help you get into these things.”

A lightning strike helps get the adrenaline pumping, too. Did Woodruff jump?

“I did,” he said with a laugh. “I looked back real quick because It sounded like it popped one of the buildings out in right field. It was pretty loud.”

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