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Blazek making fastball a priority

MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Michael Blazek is getting back to basics in his bid for a spot in the Brewers' bullpen.

Coming off an injury- and walk-plagued season, during which he lost confidence in his fastball, Blazek is prioritizing that pitch this spring. Pitching coach Derek Johnson urged him to "get back to using that as a weapon," Blazek said.

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Michael Blazek is getting back to basics in his bid for a spot in the Brewers' bullpen.

Coming off an injury- and walk-plagued season, during which he lost confidence in his fastball, Blazek is prioritizing that pitch this spring. Pitching coach Derek Johnson urged him to "get back to using that as a weapon," Blazek said.

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"Last season, the way I was using my fastball -- it wasn't really for strikes, it was more for effect," said Blazek, who averaged 93 mph with the pitch in 2016 and threw it 50.1 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. "That kind of hurt me, because the hitters kind of eliminated it and were just sitting on my offspeed.

"My offspeed is good enough to get these guys out, but that fastball is what protects them. I wasn't able to do that last year."

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An elbow injury played a part. Blazek held hitters to 8-for-40 in April before his elbow began to hurt in May. He was on the disabled list in June for an elbow impingement, then landed back on the DL in mid-August with a strained forearm.

His arm hurt most when he threw a fastball, so he began to avoid the pitch, using curveballs and sliders instead. He walked 27 batters in 41 1/3 innings while posting a 5.66 ERA, up from 18 walks in 55 2/3 innings with a 2.43 ERA in 2015.

"I think the biggest thing is getting the confidence back to throw that fastball for strikes," Blazek said. "I've noticed that the last four [Cactus League] outings. I know there have been hits, but the good thing that I'm seeing is the trust that I have. When the catcher puts that fastball down, I have that confidence. That's a good pitch, just go with it."

He is throwing the pitch a lot this spring. His Cactus League ERA has taken a bit of a hit as a result, but manager Craig Counsell sees progress.

"His command, I think he's on the right track with that," Counsell said. "He and [Johnson] have made a significant effort with that. That has to come first. I don't want to say we started over, but [Blazek has been] really disciplined with some delivery stuff. Strikes have to come first, and then the quality of everything else, and the power, and the nastiness that is in there, probably could come second."

Blazek is part of a crowded field bidding for spots in the bullpen, a field that includes new closer Neftali Feliz and setup men Carlos Torres, Jacob Barnes and Corey Knebel.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Milwaukee Brewers, Michael Blazek