PHOENIX -- It was the Venezuelan winter season of 2009-10, and Junior Guerra was thinking about giving up baseball.Guerra was 24 and coming off a lost season in the Mets' Minor League system. Guerra had been suspended in January 2009 for 50 games after testing positive for a metabolite of
PHOENIX -- It was the Venezuelan winter season of 2009-10, and Junior Guerra was thinking about giving up baseball.
Guerra was 24 and coming off a lost season in the Mets' Minor League system. Guerra had been suspended in January 2009 for 50 games after testing positive for a metabolite of the anabolic steroid Nandrolone, and he was released when the suspension expired. Guerra returned to his winter team, La Guaira, but the Sharks were struggling and Guerra was pitching sporadically before a demotion to the parallel league, Venezuela's version of the Minors.
"It was that time in my life when I didn't know if it was worth it anymore," Guerra said. "I didn't know what to think anymore. I was a little down.
"Thanks to the support of my wife, I kept my head up. I kept working. Thankfully, everything worked out."
It worked out so well that Guerra's wife, Erika, will be in the stands at Miller Park just after 1 p.m. CT on Monday, when Guerra starts against the Rockies and throws the first pitch of the Brewers' 49th season as a franchise. His path from those dark days in winter ball to the bright lights of Major League Baseball's Opening Day took Guerra from Venezuela to Spain to Wichita, Kan., to Mexico to Italy, back to Wichita and finally back to affiliated baseball.
Now, after going 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts with the Brewers last season, Guerra is a 32-year-old entering his first full Major League season.
What took so long?
"The suspension closed a lot of doors for me," Guerra said. "A lot of teams weren't willing to give me the opportunity."
One voice kept saying, "Keep trying."
"I just have to be real thankful to my wife," Guerra said. "She's always been there for me, whether it's a good day or a bad day. She always encourages me."
As Guerra uttered these words, the Brewers were still playing a game against the A's in which Guerra was touched for 10 hits, including four home runs. Five days later, he surrendered four runs on nine hits against the Indians without making it through the end of the fourth inning.
Guerra attributed those results to overthinking. Whatever the cause, he did not exactly charge into the regular season.
The teammates who have known Guerra the longest say they are not worried.
"I faced him in winter ball but didn't know his background -- Spain and Italy and all that stuff," said utility man Hernan Perez. "I know in Venezuela he was one of the best pitchers. Everybody knows who Junior Guerra is. You saw it last year; that's great stuff."
"He's got the stuff to be one of the best pitchers in the game," said catcher and longtime friend Manny Pina, who, if he gets the start, would form the second half of the first all-Venezuelan battery for a National League team on an Opening Day.
That stuff starts with a 93-97 mph fastball and ends with a split-fingered pitch at about 86 mph that dives to the dirt to induce swings and misses. It was that pitch -- which Guerra learned in Venezuela and honed over a five-year period of experimentation -- that drew the interest of the Brewers' pro scouting and analytics departments, who urged general manager David Stearns to put a claim on Guerra when the White Sox waived him in October 2015 to clear a 40-man roster spot.
The pitch is effective because of its extraordinarily slow spin rate, which is a positive trait for pitches that dive. Statcast™ registered 252 splitters from Guerra in 2016, with an average spin rate of 1,013 rpm. That ranked third lowest among the 25 pitchers who threw the pitch at least 100 times. Mike Pelfrey, who was just released by Tigers on Thursday, threw the splitter that spun most slowly, at an average of 932 rpm.
When the Brewers won that claim, Guerra became Stearns' first player acquisition. Not a bad start.
"You see it in his face, how hard he works," Perez said of Guerra. "He just needed the opportunity. Milwaukee gave it to him, and he didn't disappoint."
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.