MILWAUKEE -- Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta have been hurt. Eric Lauer and Adrian Houser have been inconsistent. Corbin Burnes has been Corbin Burnes.
With everything going on around him, that’s exactly what the Brewers have needed.
In a 5-4 win over the Blue Jays at American Family Field on Saturday, Burnes became the first Brewers starter to pitch into the eighth inning this season and looked the part of the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. He scattered five hits including a pair of solo homers and teamed with Devin Williams and Josh Hader on a victory to keep pace with the Cardinals atop the NL Central standings.
“It’s a stopper. It’s length in the game. It’s zeros,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of Burnes. “When you have a guy like that, you know when his turn is coming up that you’re going to get a really good effort and you’re going to get deep into a game and you’re going to get zeros. He’s picked up right where he left off last year and is just pitching wonderfully.”
Burnes was charged with three runs on those five hits, along with two walks and nine strikeouts. He was one whiff shy of matching Yovani Gallardo’s club record for double-digit strikeout performances; Burnes has 17 such outings, including in his other start on this homestand against St. Louis. Gallardo had 18 double-digit strikeout games during his Brewers career.
Since the start of last season, Burnes has 20 starts with at least nine strikeouts. No Major League starter has more.
“It’s huge to have a guy you can fall back on every fifth day,” said Brewers infielder Mike Brosseau, who hit one of two Brewers home runs on his second day removed from a stint on the injured list. “We know he’s going to give the bullpen a rest and go do his thing for seven or eight innings. It’s funny, you can almost expect it at this point with what he has.”
Andrew McCutchen and Brosseau homered to back Burnes, who has won three straight starts and delivered 11 quality starts in his first 15 trips to the mound. Burnes has limited the opponent to three or fewer runs in all but two of his outings.
For so much of this season, the trouble has been run support. But the Brewers provided plenty at the expense of Blue Jays left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who was knocked out of the game by Brosseau’s homer leading off the third inning.
Burnes lasted much deeper into the day. A Matt Chapman homer followed by Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s single with two outs in the eighth inning denied Burnes a chance to finish that frame, but Williams delivered an 18th consecutive scoreless outing and Hader secured his 22nd save in 23 chances despite allowing a run in the ninth.
Those were the only two pitchers who warmed up behind Burnes, so the Brewers’ bullpen is well-positioned going into Chi Chi González’s second Milwaukee start on Sunday. Burnes had a lot to do with that.
“For the most part it was pretty good,” Burnes said. “In the early innings through kind of the middle innings, I kind of struggled with command with everything -- cutter, slider. Early on we were able to get in the zone enough to get some outs and then second time through the order they helped me out by swinging a lot more. We were kind of all over the place with everything, then really two lazy 0-0 pitches that were hit out for homers. Other than that, it was pretty good overall.”
Answers like that have been common this season, even when the box scores say Burnes was electric. In his last three starts, he’s allowed five runs in 20 2/3 innings with 27 strikeouts. He has at least eight strikeouts in five of his last six starts.
But rarely is he effusive in his self-critique of an outing.
The Athletic’s Will Sammon wrote this week of Burnes’ journal, in which he awards himself an “execution percentage” for each outing. Burnes comes up with the figure by re-watching a video reel of each pitch from a game and grading them for location and movement.
“There’s just always room to improve,” he said. “If you get content and get happy with where you’re at, then things start to go downhill. I think we have a lot of room to grow with the cutter; it was kind of all over the place. Got lazy with it. But other than that we made some pitches and got outs when we needed to. For the most part, it was good.”