Notes: Yelich in grand form; Piña feels ready

March 25th, 2021

PHOENIX -- There’s still a week to go before the Brewers host the Twins on Opening Day, but looks ready for Milwaukee.

Yelich sent a grand slam over the batter’s eye at American Family Fields of Phoenix during the Brewers’ six-run third inning against Jon Gray and the Rockies on Wednesday -- Yelich’s second straight game with a home run, his third straight game with an RBI and his fourth straight game with a hit.

After he worked a walk his next time up, Yelich called it a day with a .450/.542/1.000 slash line through 24 plate appearances in Spring Training.

"I think we've been pretty consistent on Christian. He's in a good place,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said at the start of Yelich’s four-game binge. “We're ready. He's ready to go. I wish that, from his perspective, the season starts tomorrow."

The season starts April 1 at American Family Field, the stadium formerly known as Miller Park, where Yelich will come back from what constituted a down year for him. He batted a career-worst .205 during the shortened 2020 season with a respectable .356 on-base percentage and a .430 slugging percentage, numbers which -- despite a 32-homer pace over a full season -- represented a drop-off from his MVP-caliber performance during his first two seasons with the Brewers in 2018 and ’19.

Not surprisingly, Yelich’s hitting spree followed a marathon session of swings with Brewers hitting coach Andy Haines. Yelich swung so much with Haines early last week that the Brewers scratched him from the starting lineup for a March 15 game against the Padres, and he didn’t return to game action until four days later.

But Yelich tallied two hits, including a ringing double, in his return against the D-backs, then walked and singled home a run two days later against the Mariners and homered off Walker Buehler two days after that, on Tuesday against the Dodgers. On Wednesday, Yelich played back-to-back days for the first time this spring.

“’Yeli’ took a bunch of good swings. The walk at the end was a good [plate appearance],” Counsell said. “Positive signs.”

Piña: 'I feel strong and healthy'
One of the quietly positive developments of Brewers camp has been the healthy return of catcher , who missed the second half of the shortened ’20 season with a right knee injury that required surgery. Piña is hitting .353/.333/.824 in his first 18 Cactus League plate appearances and has also been logging time in scrimmages and “B” games as Brewers pitchers get their work.

“I feel very good,” Piña said. “I worked so hard during the offseason recovering from my meniscus. Every day I was working in the pool, exercising. Swimming is going to help be me more strong and more stable. Every day I have more confidence.

“I know my defense is always there, and I keep working on that, but I want to improve my offense this year. I’m seeing the ball very well right now. If I see a good pitch, I swing, and that’s what I want to continue from the first day of Spring Training to when we win the World Series.”

Piña is the longest-tenured Brewers player with the departure of Ryan Braun. Piña debuted on Aug. 1, 2016, a day before Orlando Arcia.

“I feel proud, man,” Piña said. “That makes me happy. It’s good when a young pitcher comes to you and asks you something, that makes me feel very good. I know I have experience, so I can help the young guys coming up and even the guys who are here. I don’t feel like I’m 33. I feel strong, and I feel healthy.”

Memory lane
Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of one of the oddest moments ever in Spring Training, the day a pitch from Randy Johnson killed a bird flying in front of home plate during a D-backs game against the Giants. Counsell played in that game.

“I guess I remember Randy's reaction more than anything,” Counsell said, “because when Randy was on a baseball field, nothing was funny. Nothing was light. You know? It was serious. I don't think we knew how incredible the odds of what happened were.

“I don't think we even knew exactly what happened when it happened. So, the game went on and Randy didn't smile too much, so nobody else smiled. At least I didn't smile at that time. The game kind of just went on, and then it kind of became this folklore of Randy Johnson.”

Last call
• Kolten Wong has hit three home runs for the Brewers this spring, all leading off the first inning in the past eight days. He went deep March 16 off the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Friday off the D-backs’ Caleb Smith and Wednesday off Gray.

• Veteran non-roster invitee Brad Boxberger touched 94 mph and sat at 93 mph while striking out the side in the eighth inning against the Rockies, representing a jump in velocity from recent outings. He’s a candidate for the Brewers’ bullpen.

• Counsell provided further clarity on the plan for Jacob Nottingham in the coming days, saying Nottingham was catching bullpen sessions but unlikely to catch in a game before the end of camp. Nottingham, who had left thumb surgery in December, is expected to begin the regular season on the injured list.

• Right-hander Alec Bettinger, the Brewers’ No. 22 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has progressed to throwing off the mound, Counsell said. Bettinger, one of the 40-man-roster pitchers expected to help the Brewers cover innings this season, has been sidelined by an elbow injury.