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Craig Counsell chooses Brandon Woodruff as Brewers' Opening Day starter
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Craig Counsell chooses Brandon Woodruff as Brewers' Opening Day starter

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Picking an Opening Day starter was a little more difficult than usual this year for Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell.

Counsell had two bona fide aces to choose from in right-handers Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, who established themselves as two of the National League’s best young pitchers during the 2020 season.

Counsell ultimately chose Woodruff for the honor, making him the first Brewers pitcher to make back-to-back Opening Day starts since Yovani Gallardo made the last of his franchise-record five in a row in 2014.

“Brandon has earned it,” Counsell said after announcing the decision Thursday morning. “You try to put a guy there that earned it, and that’s what Brandon has done.”

Woodruff, 28, went 3-5 with a 3.05 ERA in an MLB-leading 13 starts during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He was fourth among NL pitchers with a .204 batting average against and 6.72 hits per nine innings; fifth with a 0.99 WHIP and 5.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio; and seventh with 91 strikeouts and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

“Any time you can go out, get the ball for the first game and try and set the tone for the year, it’s a huge honor and something I don’t take lightly,” Woodruff said.

It will be a significantly different atmosphere when he takes the mound April 1 against the Minnesota Twins at American Family Field than what he experienced when he opened last season against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

That game, which came three months after the season originally was scheduled to begin, was played without fans. The Brewers open this season at home with approximately 12,000 fans, thanks to approval from the City of Milwaukee to allow up to 25% capacity to start the season.

“It makes a difference,” Woodruff said. “It was still a special day (last year), definitely a unique one that I can always look back on, but I’m definitely excited to get back home and get going.”

Woodruff has a 4.50 ERA through two Cactus League appearances but felt he turned a corner after making a few adjustments while pitching in an intrasquad scrimmage Wednesday during the team’s off-day.

“Yesterday was a huge step for me,” Woodruff said. “I had it working all day, so that’s definitely a positive sign.”

Burnes will take the mound for Milwaukee’s second game April 3 against the Twins. Counsell has yet to make any decisions beyond that, but Adrian Houser, Brett Anderson and either Josh Lindblom or Freddy Peralta would follow Woodruff and Burnes if the schedule being used in Cactus League games carries over to the regular season.

Counsell also wasn’t ready to make a decision on a five- or six-man rotation, which some teams are employing at least to start the season to help protect pitchers as they return to a normal workload after last year’s 60-game season. The early season schedule, which includes four off days in the first 18 days, provides some flexibility. Counsell in the past has used early off-days to avoid picking a fifth starter.

“We’re going to give ourselves flexibility there,” Counsell said. “I think most times this year, you will see us stick to five. I don’t think we’ll go below five. We’re more likely to go to six than go below five.”

On the field

Burnes struck out four over 3⅔ innings but Milwaukee’s lineup managed just one hit and struck out eight times in five innings against left-hander Andrew Heaney during a 3-2 loss to the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

Burnes allowed an unearned run on two hits and a walk while throwing 37 of his 60 pitches for strikes in his third spring outing.

“It was a little bit ‘grindy’ early on, trying to figure out some mechanics,” said Burnes, who has a 0.33 WHIP and 11 strikeouts in 6⅔ innings this spring. “But the third and fourth was a lot better. Cleaned some things up. A good outing to get stretched out.”

The Brewers tagged Heaney for four runs on four hits and three walks his last time out but managed just two Luis Urias walks against him over the first four innings Thursday and didn’t record a hit until Daniel Robertson singled with one out in the fifth.

Billy McKinney hit his second home run of the spring in the seventh, making the score 1-1, but the Angels retook the lead in the bottom of the inning, scoring twice against right-hander Eric Yardley (0-1).

Daniel Vogelbach capped off Milwaukee’s scoring with an RBI double in the eighth.

Around the horn

Right-hander Devin Williams will make his Cactus League debut Saturday night when the Brewers face the Reds. ... The Brewers will appear on national television seven times this season, starting with their Monday, April 12 game against the Cubs on FS1. ... Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton will again serve as the Brewers’ alternate training site prior to the May 5 start to the Class AAA season.


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

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