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Brewers manager Craig Counsell expects bounce-back performance from the offense
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Brewers manager Craig Counsell expects bounce-back performance from the offense

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PHOENIX — You’ll forgive Craig Counsell if he’s reluctant to make any sweeping conclusions or offer any predictions about the state of the Milwaukee Brewers’ offense as Opening Day nears.

The manager learned his lesson the hard way a year ago when he expressed optimism that his team, which finished with the second-most strikeouts in 2019, would be a much more contact-oriented group in the shortened 2020 season.

Counsell turned out to be dead wrong as Milwaukee finished near the bottom of almost every statistical category last season, except for strikeouts. The Brewers led the National League with 583.

“Apparently I’m not good at making predictions anymore,” Counsell said Sunday as the team prepared to break camp and head to Texas for a pair of exhibition games ahead of the season-opener Thursday in Milwaukee. “But I think we’re going to score more runs. ... I’m not going to get picky about how we do it.”

If spring training is any indication, Counsell isn’t wrong. After a seven-run effort against the Cincinnati Reds in their Cactus League finale Sunday, the Brewers left Arizona with an MLB-leading .842 OPS, tied with the Kansas City Royals for the top slugging percentage (.496), second to the Royals with 44 home runs and tops among National League teams with 148 runs scored.

Individually, catcher Omar Narvaez appeared to turn the page on a miserable 2020 performance by batting .311 with three home runs, six RBIs and a 1.098 OPS in 13 games. Outfielder Christian Yelich seems poised to return to MVP-caliber form after batting .400 (10-for-25) with three homers, 10 RBIs and a 1.402 OPS in his 12 appearances.

Newly acquired second baseman Kolten Wong made a positive first impression with a .412 OBP and three leadoff home runs. Keston Hiura’s transition to first base didn’t hinder his offense as he batted .286 with four homers, 10 RBIs and a .976 OPS in 17 games.

“The guys are in a good spot to start the season.” Counsell said. “I think we got our guys ready.”

Though just about every hitter on the roster did some sort of evaluation and refinement during the offseason, Counsell points to the return of normalcy from the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of the schedule as a leading factor in the offensive turnaround.

Instead of having just two weeks of summer camp to get back up to speed after a three-month hiatus, players this year had a full spring to work on their swings. There were just 60 games last season, which normally would get a player from Opening Day to Memorial Day.

So what would be classified as a cold start in any other year became a season-long funk with little time to turn things around.

“I think what the camp did last year was it didn’t allow you to relax because the season was always just right around the corner,” Counsell said. “(Getting back to normal) has certainly made a big difference for our hitters.”

With extra time this spring, hitters were able to break down individual parts of their swings and their approaches, then put any adjustments and improvements into practice during games.

Counsell also changed the way he built up some of his hitters. He got them into games earlier than in years past, then pulled back a bit to let them work before ramping back up again of the final few games.

Judging from the results, as meaningless as they are at this point of the year, the plan has worked.

“For the most part, we’ve been able to accomplish exactly what we wanted to with them,” Counsell said. “They’ve been able to get into a solid, I don’t want to say leisurely, but an at-their-own-pace routine.”

On the field

Corbin Burnes struck out nine in his final tuneup and Avisail Garcia hit his fourth home run as the Brewers beat the Cincinnati Reds 7-1 at American Family Fields of Phoenix.

Burnes (3-0) went five innings, allowing one run on three hits and a walk. In five spring appearances, he posted a 1.65 ERA and struck out 26 batters with five walks over 16⅓ innings.

Around the horn

Right-hander Justin Topa will start the season on the injured list after experiencing elbow discomfort while pitching in a simulated game Saturday, Counsell said. … Two days after he was released, right-hander Brad Boxberger returned to the team on a minor league contract and will begin the season on Milwaukee’s taxi squad. … Daniel Vogelbach learned over the weekend that he will be on the Opening Day roster, serving primarily as a pinch hitter while also seeing occasional action at first base when Hiura needs a rest.

Here’s everything you need to know as Milwaukee Brewers kick off spring training in Arizona


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