MILWAUKEE Marco Estrada had been waiting for this moment, the point at which everything seemed to come together for him on the mound, the moment he could officially call himself a major league starter.
He had been a fill-in guy on plenty of occasions before, but ever since becoming a pitcher and getting his shot in the major leagues, Estrada wanted to be a regular starter.
And on May 23 against the Giants, he had gotten that feeling, albeit briefly. He had just thrown one of the best innings of his career a 10-pitch, 1-2-3 frame that included two strikeouts. The work he had put in with pitching coach Rick Kranitz had started to show."I was feeling really good," Estrada said. "Kranny and I had worked on a lot of things before that outing and it all finally came together. I felt great out there. Next thing you know, I hit the ball and end up getting hurt."
It was as random and unexpected as any of the Brewers injuries this season if not more so. After expecting Giants third baseman Joaquin Arias to field his hit, Estrada had slowed down on the path to first base. Once it was clear Estrada had at least a base hit, he sped up. Something felt wrong in his leg. The hit resulted in two runs scored, making for one of the pitchers most productive at-bats of his career, but Estrada had pulled up lame heading into second base. He had strained his quad.
Estrada tried his best to hide his frustration. He hoped for the best. But the truth was a trip to the disabled list could very well undo everything he had already built in his five prior starts this season.
"It was more the timing than anything else," Estrada said. "Obviously, a lot of guys had been getting hurt, and I dont want to add to that. It was tough."
With Estrada on the shelf the teams second No. 5 starter to get hurt this season Milwaukee turned to young prospect Michael Fiers. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said he had no idea what to expect from Fiers as a starter, but the team had no choice but to give him a chance.
At the time, Roenicke had expected Estrada to return as the teams unquestioned No. 5 starter. But in five starts, Fiers made his own argument to win that spot. He allowed just one earned run in two games on the road his final two starts and now holds the best ERA of any Brewers starter (including ace Zack Greinke) at 2.70.
Knowing how hard it is to hold a starting spot in the majors, Estrada remained anxious in the week following his injury. Would he get another chance to start?
But soon, Estrada was called into a brief meeting with Roenicke and his pitching coach. They laid out a schedule for the coming month, a schedule that included a June 26 start with his name next to it.
He says today that he wouldve gladly returned to the bullpen if they needed him, but the signs were clear in his voice and in his face as he spoke about that moment on Friday Estrada had dearly hoped to retain his spot in the rotation.
"If (the rotation spot) was there, great, if it wasnt then you know I have to keep working hard," Estrada said. "If I wouldve been sent back to the bullpen, you know, whatevers best for the team. I wouldve worked hard at that and hopefully tried to keep working hard to try and get back into the rotation.
"It sounded like they were pretty sure. I wasnt. You never know because things can change at any time in this game. But I was expecting to start on the 26th."
But as Fiers continues to pitch well, Roenicke continues to leave the door open. Hes clear about the position being Estradas for now. He says Estradas status as the No. 5 starter, post-injury, was never in question. But hes not willing to give Estrada much more ownership of the spot than that.
"I think when it comes down to between one or the other, yeah, youre going to look at how everybody is doing," Roenicke said. "You dont want to just say its Marcos and if Marco doesnt pitch well and Fiers pitches great, you dont want to say its just his job. Weve had a little more length with Marco to look at more starts. But Fiers, its hard to pitch better than hes been pitching recently. But well look at that and see after the break what were going to do."
With his quad strain finally healed, Estrada took the mound for his scheduled start on Tuesday, the start that Roenicke had promised him soon after his injury. And the de facto No. 5 pitcher did not disappoint at least for five of his six innings. Estrada struck out a career-high 12 batters with a pitch limit of under 100, saying on Friday that he hadnt located the ball that well all season long.
But a rough sixth inning or rather, a rough string of three batters changed the outlook of the performance, as Estrada gave up three runs on a Jay Bruce homer. Roenicke praised the six-inning performance after the game, saying on Friday that Estrada likely was just trying too hard when runners got on base, but with a bevy of one-inning slip-ups this season, the game resonated with Estrada in terms of the changes he expects to make before his lock on the No. 5 spot slips away.
"I have to find a way to stop these things," Estrada said of his one-inning blunders. "Im not always going to be good through four or five innings. I could have bad innings in between. If I can slow it down and let the game slow down and make my pitches I think Ill get going a little better."
And with Fiers nipping at his tail, keeping his performance consistent in his next few outings could mean the difference between ending this season in the rotation like he had always hoped and finding himself back in the bullpen, even after all the work hed done to earn a starting spot.
"Theres always room for improvement and thats what Im trying to keep doing," Estrada said. "Im trying to learn from the starters and ask them questions how to do certain things to make sure I stay in this rotation."
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