Lorenzo Cain put a charge into a fastball in his first at-bat off the injured list on Monday, and sent it a Statcast-projected 446 feet into the left-center-field concourse at Citizens Bank Park, up there with the cheesesteaks. Christian Yelich followed Cain at the plate, and off the IL, lining another fastball to the opposite field for a 95.8 mph single.
That was the good stuff the Brewers had been missing.
Cain and Yelich reached safely two times apiece and figured in both of Milwaukee’s scoring rallies, but it wasn’t enough in a 4-3 loss to Philadelphia that ended with Cain battling Phillies closer Héctor Neris to the end of a five-out save. Cain went down on strikes with the bases loaded, and the Brewers dropped the opener of a road trip that they hope marks the start of some better health.
“I don’t know if that’s a knuckleball, a splitter — I don’t know what it is, honestly. But it’s a pretty good pitch,” Cain said.
Whatever you call Neris’ offspeed pitch, it definitely was not the sort of thing that Cain and Yelich had been seeing from coaches during batting practice in the past couple of weeks. Yelich had not played since April 11, when his back tightened up against the Cardinals. Cain had not played since April 13, when he strained his left quad legging out a ground ball against the Cubs.
With the alternate training site disbanded in advance of Minor League Opening Day on Tuesday, the only thing the Brewers duo could do to get ready was to pick up a couple of at-bats each against rehabbing Milwaukee right-hander Josh Lindblom in a short simulation last week, and to turn up the pitching machine as high as it would go in the batting cage.
It was not exactly the same as stepping into the batter’s box against the Phillies.
“I thought they had great at-bats with not a lot going on beforehand, going into the games,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “I thought they both did really well. I think [Cain] said that’s probably the farthest ball he’s ever hit [on the first-inning home run]. That ball was hit, for sure.”
A pair of mistakes marred what could have been an uplifting night. In the second inning, shortstop Luis Urías airmailed the throw on a routine ground ball for an error that led to a pair of unearned runs — and the Phillies’ winning run. And in the eighth, after Cain’s walk and Yelich’s 106.4 mph infield single helped the Brewers produce two runs with some small ball, Avisaíl García was picked off at first base to end Milwaukee’s final threat.
“We were running there,” Counsell said. “We wanted to run because Neris, he’s tough to get hits against, and he’s slow to the plate. So, we were taking a chance there and we got picked off.”
The Brewers gave themselves more chances when Neris returned for the ninth and saw his pitch count stretch to 40, the most he’d thrown since he was a Phillies rookie in 2015.
Daniel Vogelbach’s double put the Brewers in business, and later in the inning with two outs, Billy McKinney’s seven-pitch walk and Kolten Wong’s eight-pitch infield hit brought Cain to the plate once again, with the go-ahead run in scoring position. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Cain tried to check his swing on a splitter but couldn’t do it.
If Milwaukee was searching for a silver lining, it was this: Cain and the Brewers pushed Neris to the point that he won’t be available for Game 2 of the four-game series on Tuesday, and potentially beyond.
“I don’t ever like a pitcher going that many pitches, and I know he threw a few in the inning before, but [he’s] just really gutsy,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “He looked over and said, ‘I got this.’ That was his last hitter no matter what.”
Counsell, meanwhile, suggested he would be judicious with Cain and Yelich this week to avoid any setback. Even with the pair back, the Brewers still have 15 players on the IL at the moment.
“Just to activate some players,” Counsell quipped before the game, “is a change from how last week went, for sure.”
Said Cain: “That’s the main focus, to get Yeli and myself back in the lineup and do everything possible to make sure we are healthy. It’s definitely been a rocky start for me, starting in Spring Training and then the regular season, as far as health-wise. I feel like I’m constantly playing catch-up, but once my number is called I’m going to go out there with the boys and play some ballgames, and be consistent through the rest of the year.”