MILWAUKEE For a young Marco Estrada, playing baseball at Sylmar High School in California, the strikeout was everything.
The joy of a third strike was unlike any other feeling in sports to Estrada. He and his fellow young pitchers judged their games by it. They reveled in getting batters to miss their pitches more than any other aspect of their game. The strikeout was king.
So when Estrada pitched for the first time in college a scoreless eight-inning, two-hit performance he came away disappointed. He hadn't registered a single strikeout. His coach noticed his disappointment and approached him."You just went eight innings and didn't allow a run, what are you upset about?" he asked Estrada.
The coach posed a question to his talented right-hander: "Would you rather do that the rest of the year or go five innings and have 10 strikeouts per game?"
"That's kind of when it caught on that strikeouts aren't that important," Estrada says today.
"It was everything back then. You strike someone out, and you get really excited. It's still exciting for me; you strike someone out, and you feel good about yourself. But there's another side to that. You strike out a lot of guys and you might not go as deep into games as you would otherwise. It's tough to strike out a guy on three pitches. It doesn't happen very often, so your pitch count is going to be up more than normal."
Today, that's how many of the Brewers pitchers have responded to their bevy of strikeouts in 2012 a total on pace to surpass the all-time strikeout record by a pitching staff in baseball history. Milwaukee entered Tuesday's game with 1,222 strikeouts this season, just 36 away from the franchise record set in 2008 and 182 strikeouts short of the all-time record. But like Estrada, no one in the Brewers' clubhouse seems to be concerned or even impressed by the potential record at their fingertips.
Though powerful, strikeout-heavy arms like Washington's Stephen Strasburg's or Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman's are still glorified by fans and media, the Brewers have focused as much as they can on being efficient with their pitches, inducing groundballs and lasting longer into outings, especially with a bullpen that has been either struggling or overworked on several occasions this season.
But still, the strikeouts come even while no Brewers starting pitcher other than Yovani Gallardo seems to have dominant stuff. And perhaps most surprising, Estrada, who said earlier this season that he wasn't a "strikeout pitcher," has tallied 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings a mark that puts him in fifth in all of baseball among players with more than 100 innings -- behind Strasburg, Detroit's Max Scherzer, Texas' Yu Darvish and Chicago's Francisco Liriano -- despite having a fastball that rarely ticks above 90 or 91 mph.
The rest of Milwaukee's rotation filled with guys like Mike Fiers (who throws a fastball in the high 80s) and Shaun Marcum (who isn't much higher) boasts seemingly little threat to be the best strikeout team of all-time. At the very least, this stuff surely doesn't present as much of a threat on paper as the 2000 Cubs' record-setting rotation, which boasted strikeout kings Mark Prior and Kerry Wood at the top of the heap.
"It's quite an accomplishment," injured starter Chris Narveson said. "It's kind of one of those finicky things where, outside of the media, no one is talking about it. We're out there trying to compete, so we don't care if it's a strikeout or a pop-up. We want outs any way that we can."
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has fielded questions about strikeouts all season, and he's consistently brushed them off. His Brewers rotation was never supposed to be known for its strikeouts. And he doesn't plan on changing that now, even if the staff as a whole is on pace to set a record.
"I notice it," Roenicke said. "I know where we are with it. It's nice, but I'd rather see what the ERA is at the end of the day and what kind of runs we aren't giving up."
It's the same message that Estrada echoes now, years after the days when a strikeout was everything. For one of baseball's most accomplished strikeout artists in 2012, it's only a very small slice of the pie. It's clear a lot has changed since his first college outing.
"I don't know how my strikeouts I have, but I keep hearing it's pretty good," Estrada said. "I'm just trying to keep doing what I've been doing. We're on pace for a record. That's awesome to hear. Obviously, we're doing something right. But it's not always about strikeouts. For me, I'd like to get groundballs and get that pitch count low to go deeper in the game.
"But hey, you'll take the strikeouts."
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