Glendale Community College's Marco Estrada looks to write career's newest chapter in pen

In some ways, it’s 2011 all over again for Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Marco Estrada.

That year, the one-time Glendale Community College standout enjoyed a breakthrough season, as did his Brewers.

Milwaukee returned to the postseason for the first time in three years by winning the National League Central title with a 96-66 record and a six-game cushion over St. Louis.

The Brewers weren’t just content reaching the postseason, though, and defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL Divisional series, 3-2, before running into the wild-card Cardinals.

St. Louis got the better of Milwaukee, winning the pennant in six games and eventually advancing to the World Series and defeating the Texas Rangers.

In 2011, Estrada wasn’t just a bystander, but a major player, appearing in a career-high 43 games, primarily as a reliever, while finishing with a 4-8 record and a 4.08 earned-run average in a then career-best 92 2/3 innings pitched.

Prior to 2011, Estrada had tossed a combined 31 1/3 innings at the major league level during various stints.

Fast-forward three years and Estrada has the good fortune of finding himself on another first-place Brewers squad, as Milwaukee has sat tied or alone atop the NL Central standings every day since April 5.

Unfortunately for the 10-year pro, Estrada finds himself back in the bullpen after having been elevated to the starting rotation at the close of the 2011 campaign.

“It’s obviously something that no one wants to have to go through, but it does happen in this game,” Estrada said Saturday afternoon in the visitors clubhouse of Dodger Stadium, as his Brewers were in town for a three-game series and eventually locked up a sweep. “I understand that it is a business and if you’re not performing the way you’re supposed to be, you’re going to have to pay the consequences.”

Since the close of the 2011 season, Estrada earned a starting role and has enjoyed a measure of success.

Estrada posted a 5-7 record in 2012 with a 3.64 ERA and 143 strikeouts versus 29 walks (nearly a five-to-one ratio) in 138 1/3 innings of work that constituted 23 starts and 29 total appearances.

The following year, Estrada was even stronger, as he finished with a 7-4 record (his first winning record at the major league level) and a 3.87 ERA though 21 starts and 128 innings.

In 2013, Estrada posted a career-best WHIP of 1.08 along with dropping his opponent’s batting average from .247 in 2012 to .229 in 2013.

One of perhaps the least looked upon stats those two years was homers allowed, as Estrada was consistent, allowing 18 bombs in 2012 and 19 in 2013. Estrada also walked 29 batters per season the last two years.

This season, though, those statistics, and, ultimately, Estrada’s position changed.

In 18 starts in 2014, Estrada allowed a major league-leading 27 homers, while he had already given away 36 walks through 109 innings up until his final start versus visiting Philadelphia on July 7.

In that contest, Estrada allowed two walks and a homer along with three earned runs in five innings in a 3-2 Phillies’ victory.

By that point, Estrada had posted a 7-6 record with a 4.96 ERA through 18 starts and 107 innings.

For Brewers skipper Ron Roenicke, a change was needed and Estrada, a 6-foot right-hander best known for his change-up, was thrown a curveball in being demoted to the bullpen.

“I don’t think this is the best move for [Estrada],” Roenicke said on Saturday. “I don’t think this is what he wants to do. He wants to start, but he wasn’t pitching that well as a starter.”

Perhaps it could also be said that Estrada was a victim of circumstances.

While Estrada dropped two straight decisions, Milwaukee prospect Jimmy Nelson was tearing up the Pacific Coast League for the Nashville Sounds, the Brewers’ triple-A affiliate.

The 25-year-old Nelson was 10-2 with a 1.46 ERA and 114 strikeouts through 111 innings with only three homers allowed and 32 walks.

“The last few [outings], I think he pitched better,” Roenicke said of Estrada, “but it was at a point where Jimmy Nelson was pitching so well in triple-A that he deserved a shot to start. Marco was the guy that wasn’t pitching well and that’s why we did that.”

While the move to the pen didn’t sit well with Estrada, who hadn’t thrown extensive relief work since the 2011 campaign, the 31-year-old veteran knew he had to make the best of his new situation.

“I know I obviously want to start again, but I’m not going to worry about that right now,” Estrada said. “I have to worry about this season, I have to worry about today. We have a great team here, we’re going to be in contention and if we keep playing the way we’re playing, we’re going to go pretty far. That’s where my mind is right now, it’s on this season.”

It’s that focus that has allowed Estrada to return to form.

Since July 7, Estrada has made eight appearances out of the pen, primarily in long relief, and has allowed eight earned runs on 20 hits through 20 1/3 innings for a 3.54 ERA as of Monday.

Maybe as important, Estrada has only allowed one homer and six walks during that span.

“As a reliever, you can go any day,” said Estrada, who allowed two earned runs on three hits in one inning of work Sunday in his Dodgers Stadium debut. “I just threw four innings three days ago and I’ve already been asked if I’m OK to go. So, obviously I’m going to say yeah and you can pitch any given day.

“That’s the difference, being mentally ready every single day. That’s been the biggest change for me, but I’ve done it before.”

Maybe Estrada’s welcome-back-to-the-bullpen moment came July 19 at Washington.

On that day, Milwaukee starter Matt Garza lasted 1/3 of an inning and allowed five earned runs on five hits, while throwing 42 pitches before being pulled.

“It’s something you never expect,” Estrada said. “I guess in my role I should always expect it, but you don’t ever want to expect it obviously, because that means our starting pitching didn’t fare so well or he got hurt or something.”

While Garza’s pitch-count mounted, Estrada still thought he’d have a little break before he’d see action.

“It just happened so quick I really had no time to think about it,” Estrada said. “I look up and I saw 30 pitches and I thought, ‘Alright, I’d better start stretching.’ As soon as I went down to kind of do an arm stretch, the phone rang. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Man, the pitcher is about to come up, maybe I still have time, maybe they’ll let him face at least the pitcher.’

“I threw like five or six pitches and I see the manager walking out to get the starter out.”

While Estrada classified the outing as rough, he delivered his team a sturdy effort, allowing three earned runs on five hits in 5 2/3 innings of work.

“To have to go 5 2/3 innings all of a sudden was tough, but I got through it and I did what was possible and what they asked me to do,” said Estrada, who is 7-6 with a 4.74 ERA and has fanned 105 batters in 127 1/3 innings overall this season. “I did my job and unfortunately we still lost that game, but I did all I could.”

The effort drew Roenicke’s attention.

“We had something happen in the first inning and he had to come in right away,” Roenicke said. “I can’t remember exactly, but he had to throw like five innings and like 85 pitches and he definitely did a really nice job.”

Even though Estrada has had efforts of three, four and 5 2/3 innings, Roenicke has also found value in short, quick outings, such as a scoreless 2/3-inning result against Tampa Bay on July 29 or two blank innings versus St. Louis on Aug. 2.

“He’s had a couple of one-, two-inning stints, but then all of a sudden recently, we’ve had these other ones crop up, so he threw three innings the other day, 52 pitches,” Roenicke said. “He’s done exactly what we’ve wanted him to do. To be able to cover us when a starter goes bad and then also to give us some innings in between.

“Sometimes I’ve been pitching some of these relievers a lot and he’s really filled in and done a nice job for us. In long relief, he’s been good and in the short little things I’ve also put him in, he’s also done a nice job.”

Estrada’s value has especially gone up as injuries to Brewers starters Garza and Kyle Lohse have forced some shuffling of the pitching staff, although Estrada is unlikely to be back in the rotation this season.

For the rest of the season, it’s more than likely the Sylmar High product will remain in the bullpen.

“Well you never know,” Roenicke said. “If we get Garza back and everybody stays healthy, yes, that’s where he’ll be, but you don’t know. Hopefully, we stay heathy, but that’s where we’ll plan to have him for now.”

And so from the bullpen again, like 2011, Estrada will try again to prove his value to a squad that’s aspiring to make a deep postseason run.

“I’m still part of the team and not only that, we’re in first place right now,” Estrada said. “I don’t really have time to think about what happened. I just go out whenever the phone rings and my name is called upon and I try and do my job, that’s all I can do.

“Now for next year, who knows. I’m not going to think about it until this season is over with, but right now we’re in the first place, we’ve got a great team and all I can do is keep doing whatever they ask me to do.”


Follow Andrew J. Campa on Twitter: @campadresports.

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