Villanueva comes to the rescue
Right-hander fills in after Capuano suffers left groin strain
DETROIT -- Only about 10 minutes before the scheduled start of Wednesday's Brewers-Tigers game at Comerica Park, Milwaukee reliever Carlos Villanueva was using the restroom in the clubhouse before making his usual trip, gum and sunflower seeds in tow as the junior member of the pitching staff, out to the bullpen.
Brewers manager Ned Yost suddenly appeared with word that Villanueva needed to get loose. Starter Chris Capuano had tweaked a groin muscle in his pregame warm-ups, and the Brewers needed Villanueva to pitch.
"I honestly thought he was joking," said Villanueva, a 23-year-old who pitches beyond his years. "So I took my time. I got my glove, I walked out, and when I got to the dugout, people started staring at me. I went, 'Oh, maybe it's true.'"
It was true. Capuano began feeling stiff while playing catch on flat ground, and when he moved to the bullpen mound the sensation only got worse with each pitch. Ten or 11 pitches in, he made the decision that he couldn't press on.
Yost ran up to the clubhouse and asked right-hander Claudio Vargas about his availability, but Vargas had thrown a long side session on Tuesday. He tried Dave Bush, but Bush had just done the same on Wednesday. Next on the emergency call sheet was Villanueva.
And Villanueva delivered, working five bullpen-saving innings in the Brewers' come-from-behind, 3-2 win over the Tigers. Two days after tossing two innings and getting the win at Texas, Villanueva surrendered one run on five hits with two walks and four strikeouts. He threw 77 pitches in a performance that impressed everybody, especially Capuano.
"That was pretty impressive," Capuano said.
Capuano started the season 5-0 but has since gone 0-5, with the Brewers losing each of his last six starts. Wednesday was as good a time as any for a turnaround, since Capuano is 4-0 lifetime against American League Central teams including a win last June against the Tigers.
His next scheduled start would come Monday at Miller Park against the San Francisco Giants.
"If there was any way I felt I could have thrown through it effectively, I would have done it," Capuano said. "But at my release, it was really 'grabbing.' It was a bad feeling out there, knowing the game was coming up. It was 6:50 [p.m. ET] at that point. I just couldn't go.
"I'm hoping it's not going to cause me to lose much time," Capuano said. "I don't know anything at this point. [On Thursday], we'll know a lot more."
Should Capuano need to miss a start, one obvious option would be Villanueva, who went 2-2 with a 3.69 ERA last season for the Brewers in 10 games, six starts, after a midseason call up from Double-A Huntsville. Between two big-league stints last season he pitched for Triple-A Nashville, going 7-1 with a 2.71 ERA that vaulted him near the top of the organizational prospect chart alongside friend and fellow right-hander Yovani Gallardo.
This spring, Villanueva was targeted for the starting rotation at Nashville but won a spot in Milwaukee's bullpen. He is 5-0 with a 2.87 ERA in 27 games including Wednesday's start.
"It's the way he goes about his business," said Brewers closer Francisco Cordero, a fellow Dominican who has taken Villanueva under his wing. "He doesn't look like he doesn't even have a year in the big leagues. He is just so confident. He knows how to pitch. He knows his way."
Once he figured out Yost & Co. were not trying to pull a practical joke Wednesday, Villanueva was told by home-plate umpire Dale Scott to take as much time as he needed warming up. He was thrust into the same situation last Sept. 15 at Washington, called into emergency duty when starter Tomo Ohka injured a hamstring legging out a third-inning grounder. Villanueva worked six stellar innings in that game for his first Major League win.
In both instances, Villanueva didn't have time to think about the task at hand. He just had to do it.
"I took it as a regular start," he said. "We had our regular [pre-series] meeting, so I knew how to pitch everybody. I didn't want to get anybody nervous by looking nervous myself."
Said Yost: "He stepped up, big time. I was just hoping that maybe we could get him through three, but he was pitching so well and he kept his pitch count down."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.