SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It was a case of landing in the right place at the right time. Daniel Cho had just accepted a job with the Brewers to do video scouting at Triple-A Colorado Springs when first baseman Ji-Man Choi signed a Minor League deal with Milwaukee in January.
Since Cho speaks Korean, he is doubling as an interpreter for Choi in big league camp. Choi speaks conversational English but employs Cho for more complicated discussions and for most media interviews.
"I just felt comfortable here," Choi said of signing with the Brewers. "I had an attraction to this organization because everybody was very open."
The feeling was mutual, said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who noted Choi's "sneaky-good" 2017 season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he slashed .288/.373/.538. The Brewers made Choi a priority going into the offseason, Counsell said.
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So far, it looks like a good investment. Choi faces long odds to make Milwaukee's Opening Day roster, but has made an impression by hitting .393 with a 1.300 OPS in his first 28 at-bats this spring, including a grand slam on Monday against the Dodgers.
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He didn't have much to show for some hard-hit balls on a windy Thursday, when Choi went 0-for-3 with a pair of warning track outs in a 6-5 loss to the Rangers.
Choi spent last year with the Yankees, and while he didn't stick long as New York's first baseman, his six-game stint in the Major Leagues did include a July 7 home run off Brewers right-hander Junior Guerra. Has Guerra said anything now that they've been united in Brewers camp?
"He acts like he doesn't know me," Choi joked.
His sense of humor has shined through in a couple of instances. Asked about Eric Thames, who came to the Brewers after three seasons in the Korea Baseball Organization, Choi said, "He's probably more popular in Korea than I am."
Choi knows that Thames stands in his way of a spot with the Brewers, not to mention Jesus Aguilar and Ryan Braun.
"There's competition at any level, so I'm not too worried about that," Choi said. "I feel like it's going to be a battle anywhere I go."
Brewers closer Corey Knebel pitched his first scoreless inning of the spring with a heavy heart. He did not learn about the passing of his college coach, Texas Longhorns legend Augie Garrido, until after arriving at the field on Thursday.
Knebel asked for a few days to collect his thoughts before he shares some memories of Garrido, a five-time National Champion and the NCAA's all-time leader in wins.
On the mound, Knebel walked a pair of batters but did not allow a run for the first time in five Cactus League appearances. A National League All-Star last season, when Knebel set a Brewers relief record with 126 strikeouts, he has issued a walk in four of his first five games in Arizona, where the dry air makes it hard for pitchers to throw good curveballs.
"Nothing to worry about," Knebel said. "I know once the [regular season] games start, everything will sort of change. I'm going to feel a little different. I'm right where I want to be."
The Brewers and Rangers were barely past the two-hour mark at Surprise Stadium when Dustin Houle, a catcher who has been in Milwaukee's system since 2011, extended the game by hitting a tying, three-run home run with two outs in the ninth inning.
"It's great. Dustin is a hard worker and he does all the grunt work as kind of the last catcher here," Counsell said. "He serves the pitchers very, very well. We're very happy for him. It's a cool moment."
Said Houle: "You don't get many opportunities to showcase yourself, so when you get an opportunity like that, it's always fun to produce. It's all paying my dues. It's all part of the job description."
The Rangers wound up winning in the bottom of the ninth after reliever Ernesto Frieri walked the leadoff man. Frieri has walked seven batters (one intentionally) in 5 1/3 Cactus League innings.
Wilkerson to start at Springs
Right-hander Aaron Wilkerson will be a starting pitcher at Triple-A Colorado Springs, Counsell said. The 28-year-old had been mentioned among the competitors for Milwaukee's rotation before the team optioned him out of big league camp on Wednesday.
With Wilkerson out of the mix, left-handers Wade Miley and Brent Suter and right-handers Guerra and Brandon Woodruff are competing for two spots. Wilkerson, who made his Major League debut late last season, offers depth.
"Nothing changed from his position," Counsell said. "He's a rostered starting pitcher who is going to be in the rotation at Triple-A. That's a good position to be."
Miley will continue his bid for a roster spot when he starts against the Reds in Goodyear, Ariz. on Friday. The game will air on the Brewers Radio Network and MLB.com's Gameday Audio. First pitch is 3:05 p.m. CT.