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Brewers pitcher Justin Topa in position to make first Opening Day roster
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Brewers pitcher Justin Topa in position to make first Opening Day roster

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If there was a benefit to spending much of the last year under coronavirus-induced lockdowns and quarantine, it was having plenty of time to pick up a new skill.

Justin Topa used the time to refine his slider and has turned into a bona fide major league pitcher.

Topa, who turns 30 on Sunday, was an early-invitee to spring training last year and expected to see nothing more than late-inning action in Cactus League games once the regulars had gotten their work in and called it a day. And that’s pretty much how things played out. Topa made a total of four appearances, posting a 6.75 ERA over 2⅔ innings, before the remainder of the schedule was called off because of the pandemic.

“He was not as much on our radar, specifically before spring,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We did not speak of him in the big meeting we have every year. However, you did see him throw in a minor-league ‘B’ game or an extra game or whatever and say, ‘Wow, that’s a really good arm.’ He was coming on the radar at this time in the spring last year because the velocity had started to really pick up.”

Still, the Brewers saw enough in Topa, whom they’d signed a year earlier based on video they saw of him pitching in independent ball, to add him to their 60-man player pool when baseball resumed later in the summer.

Working at the team’s alternate training site in Appleton, Topa flummoxed hitters with his newly refined slider that made his 97 mph fastball all the more effective. The coaching staff took notice, too. When the Brewers sought to reinforce their bullpen for the final month, Topa earned his first big-league call-up.

Topa’s debut was hardly noteworthy: He allowed two runs on two hits over two innings in a 12-1 loss to the Tigers on Sept. 1. How he responded, though, was remarkable as Topa wouldn’t allow another earned run and didn’t walk a batter in his next five appearances.

He followed that with two scoreless innings in the Brewers’ 4-2 loss to the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League wild card series.

It was quite an adventure for a player who’d undergone not one but two Tommy John surgeries, turned to unaffiliated baseball in the hope of keeping his career alive and wasn’t even sure if he’d pitch in an actual game at any point in 2020 since he wasn’t on Milwaukee’s 40-man roster.

“I was a pending minor league free agent again coming into the offseason so I didn’t really know where I was going to be (in 2021),” Topa said. “Just to get the call to go to the alternate site was huge for me. Once I got there and started throwing and everything, it was in the back of my mind and I knew that there was still a lot of things that had to fall into place.

“I just took it one day at a time and go out there and do what I could to control the situation, and just go out and pitch the way I knew I could.”

A year after coming to camp as an unknown, Topa is in position to make his first Opening Day roster.

“He’s done a nice job keeping himself going and getting himself to this place,” Counsell said. “The slider, the movement on the fastball, there’s been improvements there that I think are the ‘next step’ type of stuff that instead of making him a candidate make him a real guy for this team.”

On the field

Topa struck out two Wednesday in his first spring appearance and was one of four Milwaukee pitchers to combine for a no-hitter through five innings in an 8-5 victory over the Padres in Peoria, Ariz.

Drew Rasmussen started for Milwaukee and struck out three batters over two innings. Along with Topa, left-handers Brent Suter and Angel Perdomo also struck out two apiece against the Padres, who didn’t record a hit until Jake Cronenworth doubled with one out in the sixth off Eric Yardley.

“I thought it was a good day for our guys,” Counsell said.

Mark Mathias gave Milwaukee an early lead, scoring on a wild pitch in the second inning, and Pablo Reyes made it a 4-0 game in the fourth with a three-run home run off right-hander Pierce Johnson.

Reyes has played in three of the Brewers’ four games and is 2-for-6 with three walks.

“Pablo has been impressive so far,” Counsell said. “Really, every at-bat has been very good.”

The Padres cut the lead in half with two runs in the sixth. Milwaukee got one back in the seventh on Nick Kahle’s RBI double. After Gosuke Katoh tied the game at 5 with a two-run homer in the seventh, the Brewers pulled back in front with three runs in the eighth on an RBI single by Garrett Mitchell, a wild pitch and Nick Kahle’s sac fly.

Around the horn

Reyes’ home run was Milwaukee’s sixth in four spring games. The Brewers are second only to the Red Sox, who have hit nine through four games, and lead all National League and Cactus League squads in homers this spring. ... Left-hander Josh Hader will get his first work of the spring on Friday when he works an inning in a B game at the Brewers’ complex while right-hander Devin Williams won’t see action until after the team’s second scheduled day off on March 17. ... Counsell said players have not started wearing the Kinexon tracking devices that MLB is using to help with contact tracing during the pandemic. So far, several members of the coaching staff have been testing the devices, which are similar to the ones used by the NFL and NBA. ... Infielder Eric Sogard and the Chicago Cubs have agreed to a minor league contract, pending a physical. The 34-year-old Sogard hit .209 with one home run and 10 RBIs in 43 games for Milwaukee last season. 

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

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