The Milwaukee Brewers wanted speed wherever they could get it.
It showed up all over the field on Opening Day — up the middle defensively; out of the arms of Brandon Woodruff, Josh Hader and the pitching staff; and down the third-base line as Lorenzo Cain broke home to score the game-winning run in the 6-5 home win over the Minnesota Twins.
Milwaukee’s improved athleticism up the middle showed on the first and last play of the day. It started when shortstop Luis Urias dove into the hole to take away what looked to be a Luis Arraez single to lead off the top of the first inning.
An inning later, new second baseman Kolten Wong, the reigning NL Gold Glove Award winner while a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, ranged to the opposite side of the bag to nearly throw out Andrelton Simmons on a single up the middle.
While the infielders were showing their range, Cain, who won a Gold Glove in 2019 before sitting out last season due to COVID-19, didn’t get much of a chance to show off his speed in the outfield.
But it paid dividends in the end, thanks to a groundout. After Travis Shaw’s two-out, two-run double tied the game at 5 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Cain grounded out to send the game to extras. Under a new rule Major League Baseball implemented last season, Cain started the Brewers’ half of the 10th inning on second base because he made the final out of the previous inning.
The rule, which was put into place to speed the game up, worked in Milwaukee’s favor Thursday. Cain moved to third on a single by Omar Narvaez, then broke home on an infield bouncer off the bat of Orlando Arcia. Twins second baseman Jorge Polanco got to the chopper, but Cain slid past Mitch Garver’s tag and the Brewers improved to 27-26 all-time on Opening Day.
Power hitting has dominated baseball in recent years, but the Brewers won Thursday despite having just one of their 11 hits go for extra bases. It just so happened to be the biggest hit of the night — Shaw’s two-run double that capped off the three-run ninth inning to erase the 5-2 deficit.
While the Brewers seemed to take a new tactic by focusing on athleticism this offseason, they’ve been building up a stable of arms for a while. That speed showed up on the American Family Field radar gun Thursday. Brandon Woodruff got the start for the Brewers, hitting as high as 99 miles per hour in a short outing that should be common with the Brewers’ deep, hard-throwing bullpen.
The hammer of that bullpen looked every quicker than usual in the season opener. Left-handed Josh Hader sat between 98 and 100 mph while striking out the side in the top of the 10th inning.
Those arms are likely going to keep the Brewers in games, while increased speed throughout the lineup should allow the Brewers to score in more ways after a 2020 season in which they hit .223 and were outscored 264-247 while compiling a 28-32 record.
President of baseball operations David Stern set out to add speed in the offseason, signing three former Gold Glove winners in Wong, Cain and centerfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. Right fielder Avisail Garcia, who went 2 for 5 on Thursday, also dropped weight while the Brewers replaced a revolving door of first basemen with former second baseman Keston Hiura to add another rangy, middle-of-the-field guy to the infield.
While the Brewers started the year with Arcia and Bradley on the bench, there will likely be games in which the Brewers have middle infielders at all four positions with Hiura at first, Wong at second, Urias at shortstop and Arcia at third, as well as Yelich and a pair of centerfielders in the outfield in Cain and Bradley.
Barring injuries, that skill should play all year — while the bats, arms and other aspects of the game are sure to see highs and lows, as they did Thursday when the bats weren’t really there and Woodruff didn’t necessarily have it.
The other side of baseball is that, the Brewers’ next time out almost certainly won’t look the same. The lack of true power bats in the lineup could haunt the Brewers over the course of an 162-game schedule, but, at least on Opening Day, part of what the Brewers attempted to do in the offseason paid off.