While the minor league season draws to a close in early September, Major League Baseball rosters expand for the stretch run. After playing most of the season with 25 players on their active roster, the Milwaukee Brewers have spent much of September with as many of 35 active players in the dugout on any given day. Many of the beneficiaries of those extra big league roster spots have been former Timber Rattlers.
Infielder Yadiel Rivera made his major league debut in September of 2015 and made his first Opening Day roster in 2016. He's been splitting time between AAA Colorado Springs and Milwaukee for most of the season, and was most recently recalled to the majors on September 4. The clubhouse is a little more crowded now than it was in April, but he's enjoying the experience.
"We've got a lot of guys around the club, but we have fun," Rivera said. "I like to see a lot of guys in here. We talk to each other and we have fun. I don't think it's a big problem to have too many guys in the clubhouse. I think it helps you, gives you more chances to win the game late in the game."
It can be a challenge to find playing time for all the players on an expanded September roster, which can create pressure for callups to make the most of their opportunities when they get into games. Rivera, however, said he's not worried about it.
"They all know what I can do," Rivera said. "They see what I did in the (Arizona) Fall League (where he batted .315 in 21 games in a prospect-rich league in 2015) and spring training, and the start of the season. Then I went down, and I'm back here and they know what I can do. They give you the confidence that they trust you, and that's why they gave me the call back and I'm here."
Rivera was in the majors this year during the MLB All Star Break, and took the opportunity to come up to Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium for the first time since 2012. Rivera was a part of that year's Midwest League Championship team, and is holding the trophy in the team photo that covers an entire wall in the Timber Rattlers' front office.
"It was a great season when we won it all in 2012," Rivera said. It's a great group of guys and staff too. We got the upgrade (stadium renovations) the next year and I was wondering what it looked like. I had flashbacks to all the memories from 2012."
Reliever Jacob Barnes was also a part of that 2012 team, and made his major league debut in June. After spending some time on the disabled list with an elbow injury, he's back on the active roster for September. Barnes also pitched in the Arizona Fall League last year, and said life in a crowded September bullpen is somewhat similar.
"Last year when I went to the Fall League at the end of the year, it's starting to look kind of like that where you'd have plenty of guys," Barnes said. "It'll definitely give people's arms a break, and give them a little more time off, but you also get so used to pitching so often and getting that routine, that feel for all your pitches and stuff. This will be another adjustment that we all have to get used to. There definitely are some good parts to it, and it's good for people to get the chance to pitch up here."
Barnes was a relative rarity in that he experienced significant success as a pitcher in AAA with Colorado Springs, a notoriously hitter-friendly environment. He posted a 1.21 ERA with over nine strikeouts per nine innings and just one home run allowed in 17 appearances in April and May before getting the call to the major leagues.
"Obviously Colorado Springs was a little different," Barnes said. "The weather was definitely an adjustment, and then the environment of playing in and getting used to the different factors you have to take into account when you're pitching there. So there definitely were some adjustments but that's part of the game: You have to adjust while you're out there. Wherever you're going, you always have to adjust. So it was a good learning experience."
Another 2012 Timber Rattler, pitcher Brent Suter, joined the Brewers for the first time on August 19. After one outing as a spot starter, he transitioned into a bullpen role and has made a dozen appearances in relief down the stretch. To this point he said the big league experience has "been great."
"Everything you can dream of: Really great treatment, it's been great having my family out, since we're from the Cincinnati area so they've been able to come out to the weekend games a lot, and some of the midweek games. My brother's an hour and a half away in Madison, so he's been able to come out. It's been great seeing everybody again after a long minor league season and being able to help the ballclub any way I can. I'm just loving the guys and loving the atmosphere."
One of the often-unnoticed differences between major and minor league baseball is the ball itself, with the minor league ball having seams that are threaded a little differently. Suter said he noticed the change and had to respond with a change of his own.
"One of the biggest adjustments I had was the ball. The major league ball is a little different, so I had to adjust my changeup grip a little bit after the first start because it kept slipping out wrong," Suter said. "Other than that, it's pretty much been the same game just going out there and trying to get outs."
Suter joined a Brewers bullpen that includes veteran pitchers like Blaine Boyer and Carlos Torres, and said he's learning a lot day-to-day from guys who have been in his position before.
"I'm picking guys brains on on-the-field and off-the-field stuff," Suter said. "There's just so much more in-depth stuff going on with the veteran guys in terms of the hitters' tendencies. There's a whole binder, we have scouting reports on each and every hitter. We go over video before each series of every hitter. So the guys are teaching me a lot about preparation and how they go about their business, and just talking to them about the game and preparing to try to get outs."
Suter and Barnes were joined in the bullpen in September by 2013 Timber Rattlers pitcher Damien Magnifico. He made his MLB debut in August at Wrigley Field before returning to Colorado Springs to wrap up the minor league season, then returning to the majors on September 6.
"It's been a whirlwind, being called up, going to Chicago, being sent back, playing the last three or four series and then being called back up, it's been kind of a whirlwind traveling everywhere," Magnifico said.
Magnifico also retold the story of learning he'd been called up to the majors for the first time.
"I was actually just walking into the clubhouse to get food and my phone was ringing. It was (Colorado Springs manager) Rick Sweet," Magnifico said. "So I answered and said, 'What's up, Sweetie?' and he asked 'Are you at the field?' and I said, 'Yeah, I just got here.' And before I could turn around he was already coming out of his office saying, 'Hey, pack your bags, you're not pitching for me anymore.'"
As one of a dozen pitchers in the Brewers bullpen on any given day, Magnifico has had to wait a bit between appearances and pitched in just one game during his first two and a half weeks back on the roster in September. Brewers manager Craig Counsell acknowledged that it can be difficult to find innings and keep everyone sharp with expanded rosters.
"We can't keep everybody sharp with 12 guys, there's no question," Counsell said. "So there's going to be some guys that go a while between appearances. But it's also a time when you get 40 guys on your roster, so we're going to have some choices."
In the meantime, Magnifico has a simple goal.
"I just want to come up here and pitch how I know how and show them that I can do it and succeed up here," Magnifico said.