PHOENIX -- Zach Duke always had trouble beating the Brewers as a starting pitcher, so he's joined them as a reliever.
The left-hander and former National League All-Star is in Milwaukee's camp as a non-roster invitee, bidding to win a job in the bullpen. Last season was Duke's first as a full-time reliever, and after poor early-season results as a long man in Washington (8.71 ERA in 12 games, including a start), Duke found a rhythm in shorter stints with the Reds. He posted a 0.84 ERA in 14 games down the stretch.
"It didn't go very well for me in Washington. I figured out that long relief was not really my role," Duke said. "For whatever reason, my mental make-up doesn't work for that. I feel like I do better when the leverage of the game is on my shoulders. I was put in situations in Cincinnati, but in Triple-A and in the big leagues, where I was put in pressure situations late in the game, I really excelled. I figured out a couple of weapons to combat against lefties a little bit."
Duke has a long history with the Brewers. He made his Major League debut for the Pirates at Miller Park against them on July 2, 2005 and struck out nine batters, a personal best that still stands today. His first big league strikeout was Rickie Weeks, the only player from that Brewers team who remains today. Duke said he still has the baseball at home.
He beat the Brewers in the final game of the '05 season to prevent Milwaukee from posting its first winning record since 1992, but otherwise struggled with a usually right-handed-heavy Brewers lineup. In 23 career matchups, including 18 starts, Duke is 5-8 with a 5.99 ERA.
Now he's part of the team.
"Opportunity" Duke said, when asked what drove him to Milwaukee. "I looked at their 40-man roster, and then in Triple-A, Double-A, there weren't a lot of lefties around. Other teams were offering jobs to me, but I figured this was my best opportunity to get a big league job."
His former Pirates teammate, Tom Gorzelanny, is expected to play a significant left-handed role in the Brewers' bullpen, but could miss the start of the season if he has any setbacks with a surgically-repaired shoulder. Another left-hander, Will Smith, was originally to report to camp as a starter, but the Brewers' acquisition of Matt Garza pushed Smith to relief. The Brewers also have left-hander Wei-Chung Wang in camp as a Rule 5 pick and will see if he fits the bullpen plan.
Rule 5 pick Wang embraces challenge
PHOENIX -- Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Chung Wang knows his current undertaking will not be easy. It is not every day that a pitcher makes the leap from the Rookie level Gulf Coast League to the Major Leagues.
"I know a lot of people spend [so much] time to make a team. It's hard. I understand how hard it is," Wang said Saturday through translator Jay Hsu. "The feeling is like swimming from Taiwan to here, swimming in the ocean."
Wang also knows he is uniquely positioned to give it a shot. The Brewers selected the 21-year-old in December's Rule 5 Draft from the Pirates, and will have to keep him in the big leagues all season or offer him back to Pittsburgh. Brewers scouts love Wang's poise and his change-up, so they spent $50,000 and a 40-man roster spot for the right to evaluate him in Spring Training for a spot in the bullpen.
"I am still surprised," Wang said. "It's like a lottery."
Does he think he can win?
"I can do it," Wang said.
At first, he believed he'd been traded. A friend who pitches in the Baltimore system called Wang at about midnight in Taiwan after the Brewers had called his name at the Rule 5 Draft in Orlando. Eventually, a "shocked" Wang was filled in on the details of the draft, which offers opportunity to players left unprotected on their teams' 40-man rosters.
"The first couple of days, I could not sleep very well," Wang said.
He originally agreed to a lucrative international deal with the Pirates in 2011, but the contract was voided after a physical exam revealed a torn ligament in his pitching elbow that required Tommy John surgery.
Wang did not pitch at all in 2012, then went 1-3 with a 3.23 ERA in 12 games, 11 starts, in '13 for the Gulf Coast League Pirates. The Brewers loved the fact that Wang throws strikes -- 42 strikeouts versus four walks in 47 1/3 innings while holding opponents to a .209 batting average.
His fastball mostly sat at 91-93 mph, Brewers pro scouting director Zack Minasian said in December, touching 95 mph, with a change-up that is Wang's best pitch and a curveball that is developing but projectable. He throws from a high three-quarters arm slot.
Beyond his stuff, Minasian believes Wang will be bolstered by his experience pitching in Taiwan, where Wang was technically a professional.
Wang is feeling more comfortable now, in his fourth week of workouts at Maryvale Baseball Park. Wang has already thrown at least one bullpen session under pitching coach Rick Kranitz's watch, and expects to throw again Monday during the Brewers' first official workout.
As a bonus, Wang's older brother, Yao-Lin, pitches in the Cubs system and will soon be in Arizona for Spring Training.
Hand surprised by removal from roster
PHOENIX -- Brewers reliever Donovan Hand was looking forward to his first Spring Training as a member of a 40-man roster when the situation suddenly changed.
Hand was designated for assignment last week to make room for the return of Francisco Rodriguez, then spent a few tense days wondering whether he would be claimed on waivers. When Hand cleared waivers, the Brewers outrighted him to Triple-A Nashville and invited him to big league camp.
In the end, he reported Saturday with the rest of the team's pitchers and catchers.
"It worked out pretty good in the end [for the team]," Hand said. "They've got everybody, still."
He will have to win his way onto the roster, just like Hand did last year when he pitched to a 3.69 ERA in 31 games, including seven starts. He hoped his performance would lead to a spot on the Opening Day roster for 2014.
Instead, his 40-man roster spot went to Rodriguez.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say yeah, it did surprise me a little bit," Hand said. "But it's part of the business here. I love this organization. This will be my seventh year here, but of course, you want to be back in the big leagues and on the roster. You always wish for that."
• Brewers camp will essentially be closed on Sunday while players undergo off-site physical exams. At the moment, Gorzelanny has been the only player mentioned as dealing with physical limitations. Manager Ron Roenicke said Gorzelanny has been throwing on flat ground and remains on schedule to be ready for Opening Day.
• Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, on communicating with Wang: "I'm trying to learn a little Mandarin so I can talk to him. But it's kind of hard [because] I can barely speak English."