Good evening and greetings from Time Warner Cable Field at Fox Cities Stadium, where we're here live tonight to watch the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers take on the Peoria Chiefs.
The big story in tonight's game was Shaun Marcum, who made his third rehab start as a Timber Rattler and likely his last before rejoining the Brewers in the next week or so. Marcum threw 71 pitches over six innings tonight and said he understands the decision to have him start again here instead of facing the Cubs at Miller Park.
"I wanted to be pitching tonight at Miller Park against the Cubs but they kind of talked me out of it, which made sense after I thought about it," Marcum said before the game. "You don't want to have a 75 pitch count in the big leagues, you want to be able to go down there and throw every pitch and go as deep into the game as you can without a pitch count and not have to worry about it."
Marcum allowed one run on four hits over six innings, walking one and striking out three. He reached 87 on the gun and appeared to throw all five of his pitches.
"He looked good. I just talked to our clubhouse about it and that's kind of the blueprint that we're looking for day in and day out as far as our pitching and defense are concerned," Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson said. "He attacked the zone, keeps the ball down, got ahead, got some early count ground balls, allowed our defense to make some plays and get involved. It allows you to keep the momentum when you're swinging the bats offensively, you're not hanging out on the field a long time, and we put up some runs."
This was Marcum's third start for Wisconsin. He said his extended rehab this season combined with the Brewers' overall lack of success has been frustrating.
"It's been frustrating for the most part knowing that the MRI says everything is good with my elbow and shoulder, everything felt good but it was a slow process trying to get the soreness out and get back on the field," Marcum said. "And the other frustrating part was the season so far with the guys, we're out there busting our butt and things just haven't worked out for us this year."
Meanwhile, Wisconsin was able to put together five runs in the first three innings on a few Peoria errors and some timely hits. Left fielder Ben McMahan had three hits off Peoria knuckleballer Joe Zeller despite never having faced the trick pitch before at any level.
"I just went in there looking for that knuckleball up, he left one up and I put a good swing on it. It's one of those things where it's his primary pitch so you've got to go into an at bat looking for it," McMahan said. "We were all kind of anxious to get out there and see it, but we did a pretty good job today I think."
Erickson also said this was the first time all year the team has faced a pitcher throwing primarily a knuckleball.
"We faced one other guy that had a knuckleball but he used it more as a secondary pitch. This was our first typical knuckleballer of the year," Erickson said. "He's got some decent numbers too, so I think the fact that there was dead wind against him hurt him. I think (center fielder Chadwin) Stang had a really good first at bat, they threw the first three pitches below the zone and he was able to take it, then he elevated up in the zone with the knuckleball and when you elevate it doesn't get much movement and it's easier to hit, and we hit a number of elevated knuckleballs tonight."
Timber Rattlers catcher Rafael Neda also had a big night tonight. He went 2-for-4 with a single and a double, scored a run and was behind the plate for Marcum's start. His fourth inning double could have been a triple but he stumbled around first base after hitting a ball down the right field line.
"I just remember he threw me a knuckleball and it was up so I tried to hit it the other way," Neda said. "I had two strikes and saw the ball going down the right field line. I tried to get a triple but I couldn't so I stayed at second and Yadi (shortstop Yadiel Rivera) brought me in, so I'll take that."
Neda said catching Marcum was "real easy."
"You can tell every single pitch he controls it very good. He was working the inside and outside of the plate so it makes it a lot easier when he throws everything for strikes," Neda said.
Neda said he thinks Marcum is ready to return to the big leagues, and Erickson agreed.
"Talking to him, he felt good about it, he's healthy. I hope his next start is on TV," Erickson said.
A Familiar Foe
Tonight's game is the 14th of 19 between Wisconsin and Peoria this season, but the first since the end of June. Ideally that would make it easy to prepare for tonight's game, but Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson says the Chiefs have seen a fair amount of turnover on their roster.
"They've got quite a few new players, and that's one of the unique things about this league," Erickson said. "There are some teams that stay pretty consistent with the lineups they have and the pitching staff, and there are quite a few teams that are entirely different. And this is one of the teams...they've got a few players from the first half but quite a few different players as well. There's some things you know and some things you need to learn in a hurry."
One of Peoria's new players is Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, who the Cubs signed to a nine year, $30 million contract earlier this year. Erickson said this is his first time seeing Soler, but he understands the excitement.
"To be honest I know very little about him except for the last two days watching him," Erickson said. "You can understand why they like him, why they wanted to get him and why they spent some money on him. He's a big, physical kid, he looks like he's got some tools, arm strength, can run, has a little pop in his bat."
To help keep track of scouting reports, Erickson keeps a binder with batters' spray charts from games where they've had a chance to see Peoria this season.
"Basically the information that we have tallied from all the games that we've played against them earlier and the games that have been telecast by MiLB," Erickson said. "We have some information to go on as far as positioning our defense and how we want to pitch them. So there's definitely a plan before we get on the field."
At the end of the day, though, the game is still decided by players' ability to make plays.
"It doesn't matter how much information you have, you still have to execute," Erickson said.
Helping The Rattlers Finish Strong
Wisconsin plays 140 games this season (plus at least two playoff games), and for many of the players involved it's their first full professional season. That creates a challenge for Timber Rattlers Strength and Conditioning Coach Christian Polega, in his first year with the team. Polega is or at one point has been in charge of establishing and maintaining workout routines for over 40 players that have worn a Wisconsin uniform this season.
"They come to me if they have any imbalances in the body, we try to work on those areas compared to other areas, keep them on the conditioning program, keep them eating right, keep them lifting right, and just try to keep them in the game and healthy," Polega said.
Of course, players have different routines during the season based on their in-game workload and schedule.
"A lot of relievers sometimes go days without working out because they're hot each day and we don't want to get them too tight, per se, we kind of make sure they're staying on a consistent schedule with that or maybe a little lighter compared to other days," Polega said. "As far as position players go we try to get them in there every couple of days doing some sort of lifting."
Williams Working Smarter
Wisconsin pitcher Mark Williams is having a pretty good first full professional season, and last Tuesday he was named the Midwest League Pitcher of the Week for the second time this season. Williams has allowed just two runs in his last 15.1 innings of work over two starts and two relief outings.
"I'm just keeping a good head on my shoulders right now," Williams said. "I knew it was going to be like this, bouncing around a little bit but I thought it was really good that I went to the pen this last stint because it allowed me to forget about mechanics a little bit and just go out there and throw a baseball and get back to the basics of pitching. And that's really helped the last two weeks, just really going out there, having fun, just throwing the ball because I was struggling quite a bit and I just needed to get away from it and clear my mind."
Williams said working in short relief allows him to change his arsenal a bit.
"It does a little bit because you're only in there for an inning so you can throw a little bit harder," Williams said. "You don't have to hit your spots necessarily as much, you're just out there trying to get hitters out the best way you can. I was basically throwing fastball-slider out of the bullpen, trying to help develop my slider. It's getting a little better, I've still been struggling with it all year but I'm figuring it out and hopefully sooner or later I'll get it under wraps."
2012 is Williams' first full season as a professional, so he the biggest thing he's learned this year is how to stay healthy over a long year.
"There's a lot of development as far as how you work. You work hard the first half, don't be lazy, you work hard and do all the running but in the second half you have to work smarter, not so much harder and I think that was a big step for me because I always knew how to work hard but I didn't know how to, at the end of the season, work smarter, keep your body healthy and all that kind of stuff," Williams said.
Williams has a 3.86 ERA over 98 innings for Wisconsin, including eleven starts. He's struck out 79 and walked 37.