MILWAUKEE — Junior Guerra was unsure of what to expect when he reported to Maryvale Baseball Park for the start of spring training.
The Milwaukee Brewers were not sure, either.
Milwaukee is giving Guerra another chance to hold onto his rotation spot Sunday when he faces the Miami Marlins in the finale of a four-game series at Miller Park.
Guerra spent nearly five years in baseball’s wilderness — bouncing around various independent leagues and even spent a season pitching in Italy before finally making his major league debut with the Chicago White Sox late in the 2015 season.
With the Brewers a season later, the then 31-year-old made an unlikely rookie of the year bid by going 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts and was the team’s opening day starter in 2017.
His opening day outing was cut short by a calf injury and when Guerra finally returned, he looked nothing like the unexpected success story of a year earlier.
Guerra had a decent run in spring training but opened the season with Triple-A Colorado Springs where made one start before the Brewers summoned him.
When given the opportunity, Guerra made the most of it. He pitched 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball in his season debut April 11 at St. Louis and followed that up with 5 2/3 shutout innings his last time out Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds.
“We need, and I think every club needs, some surprises,” Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell. “You need some positive surprises. I think we can definitely say Junior thus far has been one. But at the same time this is a player that had a highly impressive season and we’re not talking five years removed from it. It (was) 2016. And he’s off to a good start. It’s certainly a boost for us and something we needed.”
After losing a tick off his fastball last year, Guerra’s velocity returned and his split-finger fastball, his bread-and-butter pitch, is back to finding the strike zone on a regular basis. He credited a return to winter ball play in his native Venezuela for part of the turnaround, but also the simple fact of being healthy again.
“Last year, I didn’t feel good all year,” he said. “Everything was different. My arm didn’t feel good. My delivery was wrong. But that’s what happens sometimes. That’s baseball.”
Guerra is 0-1 with a 7.71 ERA in two appearances (one start) versus Miami.
Guerra will get the chance to extend Milwaukee’s season-high five-game winning streak into an off-day Monday, as well as an opportunity for the Brewers to record their second sweep of the season. The Brewers kept the streak going with a 6-5 victory Saturday when Jesus Aguilar capped a 13-pitch at-bat by leading off the ninth inning with a walk-off home run against Junichi Tazawa .
It will be up to Miami left-hander Caleb Smith to keep Milwaukee’s brooms at bay as he looks for his first victory of 2018.
Smith could not get out of the third inning his last time out. He allowed five runs on five hits and five walks while striking out three over 2 1/3 innings of a 12-1 loss to the New York Yankees on Monday.
He wasn’t expected to open the season in Miami’s bullpen but injuries to veteran starters like Dan Straily — who’s slated to make a rehab start Tuesday — and Wei-Yen Chen created spots for rookies such as Smith, Trevor Richards and Dillon Peters.
“You’re asking a lot of young guys, but that’s OK,” Miami manager Don Mattingly said. “They’re going to learn, and that’s how they’re going to get better. So, it’s how they’re going to handle it. You talk about Dan, and Wei-Yin — and he’s throwing the ball well and keeps advancing — those kind of guys, they’ve been through it.”