Wilkerson HRs as Crew pitchers' bats stay hot

April 17th, 2019

MILWAUKEE -- What in the name of Babe Ruth is going on with Brewers pitchers at the plate this season?

They entered Wednesday’s series finale against the Cardinals batting a collective .367 after their first 30 at-bats, with a better OPS (.924) than 25 of the 30 Major League teams’ third basemen, and better than 10 American League teams’ designated hitters. Aaron Wilkerson promptly pushed those figures even higher by hitting a two-run home run that put the Brewers on the board against the Cardinals at Miller Park, a day after Brandon Woodruff’s two-run double in Tuesday’s win provided the breakaway hit in a five-run third inning that sent the Brewers to their fifth series victory in six tries.

Where is this coming from? You’ll find the answer in the batting cage off the underground tunnel at Miller Park, where, while the Brewers’ first two batting practice groups are out on the field, the four Brewers starters who aren’t working that day pair into teams for their own game of BP that rewards points for hard contact up the middle. Five points for hitting the far side of the cage on a line. Three points for hitting the L-screen.

“It’s a way to have fun, to have more competition to it,” said Freddy Peralta, who delivered a critical single in Monday’s win over the Cardinals before landing on the 10-day injured list Tuesday afternoon.

No money exchanges hands, but there’s a lot at stake.

The losers have to clean up the cage. Then they become servants to the winners during that night’s game.

“Say I want a banana,” Peralta said with a laugh. “You have to come in here [to the clubhouse] and get me a banana.

“During the game, you have to do whatever we want.”

Said Woodruff: “I hate to say it, but Freddy hasn’t won yet. But he did get his first knock, so that’s good.”

If that’s the secret to Brewers pitchers’ early-season success swinging the bat, they should keep it up. Led by Woodruff -- the right-handed pitcher with the sweet left-handed swing who showed the world his hitting prowess when he homered off the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw during last year’s National League Championship Series -- Brewers pitchers are 11-for-30 this season (.367) with three walks to push their collective on-base percentage to .424. The record for an NL staff’s batting average, incidentially, belongs to the 2002 Rockies, who hit .255. After that, it’s the 1982 Pirates, at .223.

Can this year’s Brewers top those targets? So far, so good. Jhoulys Chacin became the first Milwaukee pitcher since the Braves’ Warren Spahn to homer on Opening Day. Wilkerson made his first Major League hit a homer off Michael Wacha on Wednesday, making it two straight years that multiple Brewers pitchers have gone deep. Corbin Burnes executed the group’s lone sacrifice bunt.

Why bunt when you can hit? Woodruff has proven so proficient with the bat that he’s been swinging away in situations that might usually call for a sacrifice. In Monday’s game against the Cardinals, he was called upon to pinch-hit. Woodruff doubled.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t in the game as a pitcher, so that hit didn’t count in the staff’s stats. Still, it lifted Woodruff to a perfect 4-for-4 at the plate this season before he went 1-for-3 with that two-run double on Tuesday.

“We might have to get him in there every day,” joked Christian Yelich. “It’s a huge advantage if those guys can get on and turn it over to the top of the lineup.”

That’s what Peralta did against the Cardinals on Monday before getting hurt. His single amid an extended Brewers rally extended the second inning for Yelich’s two-out, three-run home run.

“That’s one of those hidden plays in the game that you don’t always realize,” Yelich said, “but it ended up having a big impact in the end.”

Wilkerson’s home run didn’t have the same impact, but it made for a nice moment. He was the 11th Brewers player, and the third pitcher, to homer for his first Major League hit. The last hitter to do it was Nate Orf last season. The other pitchers were Tyler Cravy in 2016 and Jeff D’Amico in 2000.

“It must be something in the water, I don’t know,” said Wilkerson, who made just as important contribution by pitching four bullpen-saving innings. “I try to take my hitting serious, but sometimes it’s tough to work on hitting when your priority is pitching. I’ve tweaked some stuff, hitting-wise. This was the first time I’ve used it, so I guess it’s working pretty well.”

What was his reaction when Wednesday’s homer left his bat? (It was a Zach Davies model, for the record.)

“I’m pretty sure my eyes were closed,” Wilkerson said.

He’ll work on that in the underground cage.

“It’s a great thing to keep your focus on staying inside the ball, staying up the middle,” Davies said. “There’s some power in our rotation, but the focus is being able to put the bat on the ball. Don’t be a liability in the lineup.

“It’s always been competitive, but the more and more we hit, the more guys get comfortable in the box. Woody came in as a natural hitter. I just think other guys are getting more comfortable.”

Said Woodruff: “It starts in Spring Training. Every day, there’s bunting. There’s situational hitting. It helps you out. One, it kills the other side when a pitcher gets up there and gets a hit. It starts snowballing. So yeah, it’s something we take seriously.”

On Tuesday night, after Yelich homered in a sixth straight game against the Cardinals, he was asked who’s more locked in at the plate:

Him, or Woodruff?

“Woody,” Yelich said without flinching. “I looked up at the scoreboard and he was hitting .870-something. It’s actually a big advantage. He really is another weapon up there and it’s fun to watch, for sure.”