My wife Heidi and I just returned from Phoenix, and while my report won't come close to Toby's, I thought I would add a few of my observations/experiences. Unfortunately, due to some less than favorable weather (it was warmer Sunday in Milwaukee than it was in Phoenix!), we were only able to take in 2 games. We attended a Thursday afternoon game vs. Texas that they lost in 10 innings as well as a rare Saturday night split-squad game (incidentally, also against the Rangers).
The one player that stuck out on Thursday was Brooks Kieschnick. He drew a walk his first three times to the plate (almost unheard of by a Brewer). In his next at-bat, he hit a long 3-run bomb to right-center to tie the game. When he came to bat the first time, I started telling my wife his story (former college standout as pitcher/hitter, toiling in the minors as everyday player until being converted to a pitcher last year, etc.) and about all of the different possibilities as far as utilizing him. She is a pretty big baseball fan, so it was easy for her to follow. The other thing that stuck out about the Brewers at the plate was that they seemed to be taking a lot more pitches than I have ever seen. This is right in line with the recent stories/interviews/reports Brewers fans have been hearing, and it was very encouraging to see in person.
On Saturday, we arrived early at the park to try to get a few autographs. We brought my 20-month old son Grant's infant-sized Brewers hat (he has since graduated to the toddler size) so that we could hopefully add to the Jamey Wright autograph we got at Miller Park last year. We stood by the fence over by the clubhouses and the practice field where the Brewers were taking batting practice. There was also a guy hauling around a large box of baseball cards, hoping to get autographs. As we were waiting, the bus returning from Tuscon with half of the team arrived. We hoped that some of the guys would stop by on their way to their cars and a few did. The first was Javier Valentin, and I was surprised at how short he is.
There were a group of three younger guys milling around in street clothes behind the practice field backstop. The guy with the baseball cards thought one of the guys was Keith Ginter, so he yelled, "Keith!" hoping to get their attention, but to no avail. They soon disappeared. A little later, someone drove by on a golf cart with Richie Sexson sitting on the other side, obviously giving him a ride to his car. Meanwhile, the Texas bus had arrived from their split-squad game, and after a little while, Buck Showalter appeared. The guy with all of the cards of course pulled out one of Showalter's to have it autographed. As Buck was out there, Tim McClelland arrived with his family and introduced them all to Mr. Showalter. McClelland handled the home plate duties for the game a few hours later.
Meanwhile, one of the players that was milling around in street clothes reappeared. It happened to be the one that was presumed to be Keith Ginter by the guy with the baseball cards. My wife got his attention, and he came over to us to sign my program and my son's hat. In no time at all, the guy with the baseball cards appeared at the fence and handed the player a sheet with about 7 baseball cards on it, all of Keith Ginter, which led to the following humorous exchange:
Player (looking quizzically at the cards): "You got my card on here?"
Baseball Card Guy: "Uhh..."
Player (handing the cards back): "You've got the wrong guy."
It turns out that the player was Dave Krynzel. We moved over to where the Brewers come out before they go out onto the field. Several players that were coming out had uniform numbers in the 90's, which did not appear on the roster list in the program that I had purchased on Thursday. Two young guys had just come out the door and had taken a step or two down the steps when my wife asked if they could come sign. One of the guys kept walking, but No. 93 came over and graciously signed autographs for a few minutes. It took just a split second after looking at the autograph to see who No. 93 was - J.J. Hardy. He was very polite. Jed Hansen and John VandenBerg also stopped to sign on his way down to the field. I couldn't believe how young John looked!
Once it was clear that most of the players had reached the field, we made our way down to the railing near the Brewers bullpen, where players were stretching. On the way down there, we recognized Dave Krynzel in his street clothes, sitting in the stands with the other two guys he had been with earlier. My wife and I both stopped and looked at each other, and then looked again at Dave and the other two players and smiled. They must have realized that we had them made, because one of the players (who I am pretty sure was Mike Jones) reached out for my sons hat. Both players ended up signing for us before we made it down to the railing. We didn't stay down by the railing long, because most of the players were finishing their stretching and heading into the dugout. We were able to collect autographs from Bill Hall, Scott Seabol, and Royce Clayton, though.
One thing that I found out about as the game started was that on days that there are split-squad games, the Brewers "borrow" some guys from the minor league camp to fill out the rosters. This is why we saw so many guys approaching the field with numbers in the 80's and 90's. As the starting lineups were announced, I was delighted to hear that Brad Nelson would be starting the game at first base. At that point, I decided that I would focus mostly on Brad during the game, as he is one of the Brewers biggest prospects (in fact, he was #1 in Toby's last Power 50).
Todd Ritchie started for the Brewers, and gave up only one run in four innings. However, the Rangers hit several ball hard off of him, including a long home run by Juan Gonzalez. For the most part, though, he seemed to be keeping the ball down in the zone. Brad Nelson looked terrible in his first at bat, striking out with two pretty ugly swings. It was obvious that he didn't have much experience against major league veterans like Ismael Valdes. He also struck out in his next at-bat, though he looked much better, fouling a few pitches off.
The game started to get interesting for me in the bottom of the fourth. As the last half of the inning started, we saw Brooks Kieschnick run in to the dugout from the bullpen. With two outs in the frame, Brooks stepped up to the plate as a pinch-hitter. He ended up striking out, but the stayed in the game to pitch. Again, you can see the luxury of having a player like Brooks on the roster. His first inning was a little rough, as he seemed to have some control problems. To me it seemed like McClelland was squeezing him a little, although it was hard to tell from where we were sitting above the Brewers' dugout. With a run in, he walked a Ranger to load the bases with two outs. However, he got out of it by striking out the next hitter.
The top of the fifth was by far the most fun of the night. It started with EY drawing a walk from new Rangers pitcher R.A. Dickey. Scott Podsednik then smoked one back through the box that bounced off of Dickey, who was unable to locate it, allowing Podsednik to reach on an infield single. With runners on first and second and no one out, Ryan Knox was called on to bunt the runners over. He laid down a perfect bunt down the third base line that Mark Teixeira kept waiting to go foul. The ball eventually stopped a few feet in front of third and a few inches fair. Bases loaded, no one out, with Jeffery Hammonds approaching the plate. He must not have heard my suggestion that he earn some of his $7 million salary, because he struck out. Wilton Veras then came up and hit a squibber just past the pitcher that wasn't handled cleanly. It was ruled a hit and scored a run. At this point, the Brewers had a run in and the bases loaded, and hadn't gotten a ball out of the infield yet.
Up stepped Brad Nelson, who up until that point was having a forgettable night at the plate. My wife reacted with an, "Oh, no. Not him." Though I had been raving about him during the game, his performance thus far had done nothing to back me up. I boldly predicted a base hit to right center. I was wrong - but only slightly. Brad got jammed but showed his strength by fighting off the pitch enough to line a base hit to left-center, scoring two. That ended the evening for R.A. Dickey, who didn't pitch terribly, but had none of the bounces go his way. Todd Van Poppel was brought in to put out the fire, which prompted one gentleman sitting next to us to note that he had seen Van Poppel's first professional game while he was with the Madison Muskies. This, of course, brought back many fond memories of watching the Fish play at Warner Park as a kid.
Anyway, Van Poppel retired Keith Osik before walking Royce Clayton to load the bases with two outs for Kieschnick. There were a group of four college-aged kids sitting above us. As Brooks stepped to the plate, one of them was up in arms. "What are they doing? This is the perfect situation for a pinch hitter. Why send the pitcher up there?"
Remembering our discussion from a few days earlier, my wife said, "How can you sit there and not say anything?" I responded that it wasn't my place, while thinking to myself that I would let Brooks show them. He fouled the first two pitches straight back, but was right on them. After the second foul ball, the guy behind us noted, "Wow. He's got a pretty good swing for a pitcher." As I smirked to myself, Brooks lined a pitch to right-center, driving in two runs. We didn't hear too much from the guy behind us after that.
At this point, the game was pretty much over. The Crew tacked on a few more runs and ended up winning 7-2. For the last few innings, J.J. Hardy went in to play SS, Bill Hall went in at 2B, and Jason Belcher took over in right. Each player received two plate appearances. Hall had a solid base hit, Hardy drew a walk, and Belcher hit the ball solidly twice but right at people. In his final plate appearance, Brad Nelson drew a walk. Again, throughout the game, the Brewers were taking a lot of pitches - they ended up taking six walks in the game. This was especially noticeable with the younger players, which is very encouraging.
There are a few lasting thoughts that have stuck with me since leaving Phoenix. First, I find it hard to imagine Brooks Kieschnick being left off of the 25-man roster. I was intrigued by his story before going to Spring Training, but after seeing him, I think he would perfectly fill the role of bullpen mop-up guy/pinch hitter/spot starter at 1B or OF. Whether or not he makes the team will give us a good idea of how open-minded Ned Yost and Doug Melvin are. It was also neat to get to see the young guys play. If Krynzel continues to build upon the strike zone awareness he showed the first part of last year, he should be battling for a starting OF spot next year. I was impressed with the progression that Brad Nelson showed in his four at-bats Saturday night. His approach noticeably improved in each at-bat, which excited me. He also showed good hustle on a foul ball hit down the first base line that he almost caught up with. I feel that if needed he could be a serviceable LF in the field. Finally, I could very easily see J.J. Hardy becoming my favorite player in the years to come. He seemed like a very down-to-earth, thoughtful young man. Many people have compared him to my boyhood idol, Robin Yount. If his hitting continues to develop to match his fielding and attitude, that comparison might not be too far off.
We definitely enjoyed our first trip to Spring Training. I would recommend that all true baseball fans try to attend Spring Training at least once. When our boys get a little older (we have another on the way due in July), we will no doubt make a return trip. Only next time, hopefully the weather will be a little nicer!