04/01/2004 10:38 PM ET
Long relief could be key
Hernandez, Ford poised to break out of 'death row'
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Long relief could go a long way in determining the Brewers' chances in 2004.
|Ben Ford, No. 79 on the Spring Training squad, will take No. 48 if he makes the final cut. (Scott Paulus/Brewers)
With a starting rotation made up of relatively inexperienced pitchers prone to high pitch counts, the team is expected to break camp with only one "one-inning guy" in the bullpen -- closer Dan Kolb.
The roster could change in the final weekend of Spring Training, but on Thursday it looked like the Brewers would surround Kolb with six pitchers capable of eating innings.
Dave Burba, Ben Ford and Adrian Hernandez all have Major League starting experience. Rule 5 pick Jeff Bennett is a hard thrower who only converted to the bullpen last season. Pitcher-hitter Brooks Kieschnick is a workhorse who pitched a mixture of mop-up and middle relief last season. Luis Vizcaino looks like the team's primary setup man, but even he pitched multiple innings six times last year and 15 times in a breakout 2002.
"We needed durability and depth down there, so we tried to stock our bullpen with guys who can go more than one inning," manager Ned Yost said. "Danny's deal is the ninth. Everyone else is flexible."
This spring, two inmates seem poised to break out of "death row."
That's the nickname given to the banks of lockers along the south wall and in the middle of the clubhouse at Maryvale Baseball Park. They are populated each spring by non-roster invitees and minor leaguers wearing uniform numbers in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
"Once you get that first taste, you can't ask for anything else."
-- Ben Ford on playing in the Majors
Since Maryvale Baseball Park opened for business in 1997, no one dressing in those lockers has ever made the Opening Day roster, but No. 69 Hernandez and No. 79 Ford may break the streak.
"They told me 69 was too high," said Hernandez, who will adopt No. 31 if he officially makes the team. Ford will take No. 48 if he makes the final cut.
Hernandez plans to save the nameplate above his spring locker as a reminder of how far he has come since the Yankees cast him off. He also plans to save a clipping from the Arizona Republic, which re-ran the MLB.com note that first detailed "death row."
"I want to hang it in my house," Hernandez said.
Ford also pitched briefly for the Yankees, but in many other ways he is the anti-Hernandez. Born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa -- like Brewers starter Wes Obermueller -- you would never catch Ford wearing Hernandez's designer clothes or heavy gold jewelry.
He improved to 3-0 with a six-up, six-down performance in Thursday's 9-6 win over the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium. In seven games this spring, Ford has a 2.25 ERA.
"Ben Ford makes you beat him," Yost said. "He's not erratic, he doesn't walk guys, he's not behind in the count. Really, that's what you're looking for. You're looking for guys that are going to go out there, throw strikes, and make the opposing team beat you."
Ford is two seasons removed from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, a procedure that forced Ford to alter his mechanics from a three-quarters delivery to a more overhand motion.
"My stuff is not as good, but I'm a pitcher now," he said. "I learned how to really pitch coming back from surgery."
Ford, like Hernandez, saw opportunity in Milwaukee and signed a Triple-A contract with a chance to win a job in camp. It was Ford's seventh Major League Spring Training, a body of experience that he said gave him an edge over younger, jumpier players.
"You don't put too much pressure on yourself to be great," Ford said. "Just come in and do what you can. I think everybody came in here and pitched pretty good, and put a lot of pressure on [the team] to make those decisions. It's one of those things where it's their opinion of what they want to go with."
Ford is attractive because of his two-seam fastball, a sinker that could help keep the opponents on the ground at homer-happy Miller Park. He signed with Milwaukee last May 19 after being released by the Minnesota Twins, and went 5-4 with a 3.00 ERA in 26 appearances, nine starts.
"Danny's deal is the ninth. Everyone else is flexible."
-- Ned Yost on the Brewers bullpen
"It took me a while to get comfortable with my new mechanics," he said. "Even now, I'm working on it but it's something that will benefit me in the long run. If I went back to my old mechanics, I probably would have blown out my elbow again."
Ford, who will turn 29 in August, has never been on an Opening Day roster and is aching to get back to the big leagues, where he has 12 career appearances for the Yankees and Diamondbacks. Arizona selected him ninth overall in the 1997 expansion draft.
"Once you get that first taste, you can't ask for anything else," he said. "That's my goal the last few years, to get back and then stay up there instead of going back and forth."
Pitching closer to Iowa also affords Ford the chance to spend more time with his parents, Gerald and Betty.
No joke. Gerald and Betty Ford.
"I've heard all the jokes already," Ford said with a laugh. "I'm sure I'll hear many more."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter
for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.