PHOENIX – It never gets old, really, this whole business of being recognized for a job well done. For most, the recognition might come as no more than a firm handshake, a heartfelt “Atta boy!” or maybe in the form of a promotion or a pay raise.
For a starting pitcher in Major League Baseball, nothing says “Great job!” more than being handed a brand new ball and being rewarded with the title of “Opening Day Starter”.
It’s an honor that has been bestowed on Milwaukee Brewers’ right-hander Yovani Gallardo the past four seasons but one he was not guaranteed to receive for a fifth straight year. Brewers’ right-handers Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza also spent the first few weeks of the Cactus League vying for consideration from manager Ron Roenicke until the Brewers’ skipper made his final decision late last week.
When Milwaukee opens the 2014 season against the Atlanta Braves on March 31 at Miller Park, Roenicke will hand the ball to Gallardo for the fifth straight year. He’ll put his trust in the 28-year-old Mexican-born righty who is beginning his eighth big-league season, all in a Brewers’ uniform.
“It means a lot and I think it’s a privilege; that’s the way I look at it,” Gallardo said Monday while speaking to Perfect Game from the Brewers’ Cactus League clubhouse at Maryvale Baseball Park. “It’s definitely a privilege to get that opportunity and it’s even more special having the opportunity to do it five years in a row.
“You have to do a lot of good things … and fortunately, other than last year, I think I’ve thrown the ball well through my career,” he said. “For this year, I’m very excited to get back into that rhythm that I was in before.”
Gallardo, who in October 2003 while a senior at Trimble Technical High School in Fort Worth, Texas, was named the Most Valuable Pitcher at the PG WWBA PG/BA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., is coming off his least productive season of the last five, but Roenicke still considers him the staff ace.
“Yovani is going to pitch Opening Day,” Roenicke told Adam McCalvy from MLB.com on March 13. “I think with him being on this club for a long time (and) having the success that he’s had, we feel like he should be the guy that starts it. And Kyle was fine with it, Garza was fine with it.
“I know they take it as an honor, and they should. But it’s not meant to do that; what it’s meant to do is, Yo deserves to start Opening Day, and he’s going to start.”
With that announcement out of the way, Gallardo is now set to embark on a 2014 season that he feels will be a huge improvement over 2013 when he finished 12-10 with a 4.13 ERA in 31 starts and 180 2/3 innings.
Gallardo struggled with personal and physical issues during the 2013 Cactus League campaign – he also pitched for his native Mexico in the World Baseball Classic – and never seemed to get on track. He’s come out strong this spring, making four starts without a decision, and giving up four earned runs in 13 innings (2.77 ERA) on 13 hits while striking out 10 and walking two.
“It’s been going good so far,” he said. “This year, for me, it’s a little bit different spring training than last year, and it’s helped me a lot. I’ve been able to take my time and work on the things that I have to work on one thing at a time instead of trying to correct everything all at once.
“I’ve been feeling good and the most important thing is the ball has been coming out (of my hand) good and I’m looking forward to keeping that going.”
The Brewers took Gallardo in the second round of the 2004 draft right out Trimble Tech and he spent three full seasons in the minor leagues before making his major league debut on June 18, 2007 at the age of 21. In the years since, he has emerged as one of the National League’s most durable starters, with five straight seasons of 30 or more starts. He posted double-digit wins each of those years with 13 in 2009; 14 in 2010; 17 in 2011; 16 in 2012 and 12 last season.
The 2011 season was his best when he finished 17-10 with a 3.52 ERA, and 207 strikeouts and 59 walks – his lowest total in the last five seasons – in 207 1/3 innings. He finished seventh in the 2011 NL Cy Young Award balloting. He was a National League All-Star in 2010, midway through a season in which he finished 14-7 with a 3.84 ERA and 200 strikeouts in 185 innings.
Gallardo also won a Silver Slugger Award in 2010. Always known as one the top hitting pitchers in the National League, he has a career average of .207 (75-for-362) with 19 doubles, 12 home runs and 41 runs batted in.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Gallardo has been known to walk his fair share of batters, including 66 in 180 2/3 innings last season. In comments made to the Beaver Dam (Wis.) Daily Citizen in a story published March 16, Brewers’ pitching coach Rick Kranitz seemed unfazed by the bases on balls numbers.
“I think they’re a bit misleading,” he said. “Yo is a power-command kind of pitcher. He doesn’t give in to the hitters, so he may have a few extra (walks) there because he’s going to try and make his pitch. Sometimes he’s just a little bit off or (he) just isn’t going to give in to that particular hitter. That’s what makes him real successful.”
Gallardo has never given in to hitters, not during his major league career, not during his short stint in the minors and certainly not during his performance at the 2003 PG WWBA PG/BA World Championship when he earned the MV Pitcher award while pitching for the Dallas Tigers 18u. His fastball sat between 89 and 92 mph and topped out at 94 at the heavily scouted event, and he also showed a 78 mph curveball and 83 mph changeup.
“It was an awesome experience just to have that opportunity,” Gallardo said as he recalled those five days playing at the Roger Dean Complex in Jupiter. “Basically, you’re facing the best travel teams from around the U.S. and I know there was a team from Puerto Rico there, too. I enjoyed it a lot; we were playing in the complex where the Marlins and Cardinals (hold spring training) there in Jupiter and, you know, I loved it. There was a lot of talent there.”
The 2003 PG WWBA World still stands out for the large number of prospects in attendance that moved on to become productive big-leaguers. Chicago Cubs left-hander James Russell, for instance, was a teammate of Gallardo’s on the Dallas Tigers 18u.
2012 National League MVP Buster Posey from the Giants and 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutcheon from the Pirates were on rosters of teams at that event, as were the Royals’ Billy Butler, the Padres’ Cameron Maybin, the Braves’ Justin Upton and the Rockies’ Dexter Fowler.
“I don’t remember those guys specifically, but it was a pretty good tournament to participate in,” Gallardo said. “With Perfect Game, you have the best of the best out there … and I remember most of it like it was yesterday, to be honest. It was fun, it was a great experience and I really enjoyed it.”
This is an important year for Gallardo in terms of his future with the Brewers, the only organization he has known. He is in the final year of a five-year, $30.1 million contract with the club holding a $13 million option for 2015 with a $600,000 buyout.
It could be argued that at age 28 Gallardo is just reaching his prime and he would love to be around to win a lot more games for the Brewers in the coming years.
“The Brewers have been awesome,” he said. “They’re the only organization I’ve ever been with and they’ve treated me very well, through the good and the bad. They stuck behind me and supported me and kept me moving forward. It’s easy to give up on a guy after a bad year or a few rough starts but they’ve been there for me. I’ve enjoyed it all, ever since I signed in ’04.”
There have been a lot more good years than bad in the time Gallardo has worn a Brewers uniform (including the shamrock green jerseys and caps he and his teammates donned Monday in observance of St. Patrick’s Day).
He has compiled an 81-53 record with a 3.72 ERA in his seven big league seasons, and as he begins his 11th season of professional baseball, he smiled when he thought back on his first appearance on a national stage, the one in Jupiter, Fla., in 2003.
“It’s been an awesome experience; it’s been unbelievable,” Gallardo said. “From participating in that Perfect Game tournament out in Jupiter 11 years ago – look where I’m at now. And the other guys that participated in that, as well – we’ve come a long way. It shows the kind of talent that’s in that tournament and the guys that come out of there have had good success; they work hard, which is the most important thing.”
Hard work does, indeed, pay off. And for a guy like Yovani Gallardo, that payoff often comes when he’s handed the ball and rewarded once again with the title of “Opening Day Starter”.