- Alan Schwarz, MLB
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Follow John Smoltz's rising save totals, and catch Dontrelle-mania all you want, but the most interesting pitcher in the National League is a Milwaukee spot reliever with a 4.76 ERA.
Brooks Kieschnick, a 31-year-old failed big-league slugger, resurrected his career last year by turning himself into a middle reliever, and was brought up to Milwaukee this April after just 48 minor league innings. (At the time, he had the least professional experience of any pitcher in the majors.) But Kieschnick has proven to be more than just a Ron Mahay-type curiosity who switches from hitting to pitching; he remains a weapon at the plate as well by DHing in interleague games, pinch-hitting more than a dozen times and batting .333 with five home runs and nine RBI in 54 at-bats.
While he hasn't quite become the majors' first full-fledged two-way player since Angels outfielder/left-handed pitcher Willie Smith in 1964 -- Brewers manager Ned Yost considers Kieschnick an option in the outfield and first base, but has yet to use him there -- the former University of Texas pitching and hitting star has proven he can indeed be used both ways. I sat down with him to talk about his uniqueness in a game that is moving more and more toward specialization.
Question: Are you aware of how rare it is for a major leaguer to do what you're doing?
Brooks Kieschnick: I guess, but this is what I've done my whole life. Going up through Little League and college, I was able to hit and I was able to pitch. That's what I did, and I did them well enough to play at the University of Texas. It is kind of odd, I guess, because not that many people get an opportunity to show that they can do it, even if they were able to. They have to do one or the other. That's exactly what happened to me -- the Cubs made me a hitter after I was drafted. Yeah, it's special, but I don't think about it that way. This is what I was born to do.
Question: Your goal was to be a legitimate major leaguer. You never attained that as a position player. Are you legitimate now, or do you still have to grow some roots?
Brooks Kieschnick: I still have to grow my roots a little bit. A legitimate major leaguer is someone who's got five years in and is established. A legitimate major leaguer signs a major league contract, not a split contract. He's been there, done that. That's something I'm working on. I'm confident in my abilities. I'm confident that I can get hitters out and get a few clutch hits at the plate.
Question: Do you think you'll see time in the outfield or first base soon? Are you itching to do that?
Brooks Kieschnick: Sometimes. I almost did one day when Geoff Jenkins took a day off, but (the other team) had a left-hander going that day. But I like that Ned isn't afraid to throw me out there. He kind of brings me in when the pitcher's spot is due up, and they can keep me in to hit, so they don't have to burn two players.
Question: In your mind right now, are you a better pitcher or hitter?
Brooks Kieschnick: I think right now I'm a better pitcher -- at this point. But pitching has also made me a better hitter. I know how I'm trying to get people out. It's almost like I'm more patient now as a hitter than when I was pitching also. If you go up there swinging with reckless abandon at everything they throw up there, man, I can get those guys out all day long. I used to just see it and hit it as hard as I could.
Also, there's pressure at the plate still -- I enjoy that -- but I don't have to worry if I don't get a hit I'll be sent down to the minor leagues. That's the way it's been. You get one at-bat, maybe three at-bats a week, no starts, you get up to the plate like, "Oh God, if I don't get a hit this time I might get sent down." Now with me being on the mound, the main thing I worry about is getting people out.
Question: You were a three-time All-American at Texas in large part because of your pitching. Were you a better pitcher then, before the 10 years off?
Brooks Kieschnick: I have a better breaking ball now than I had in college. I really threw a fastball and changeup in college. I threw a little slider, but it wasn't that good. I've really worked on the breaking ball.
Question: How old is your arm?
Brooks Kieschnick: I consider myself having a 21-year-old arm. I quit pitching when I was 21 and didn't pitch for nine years. I'm rested and ready to go.
Question: Two weeks into your major league pitching career you came in to face Ken Griffey Jr. with the game on the line -- and struck him out. What was that like?
Brooks Kieschnick: I was in the bullpen. They told me to get ready. I start running in. I had no idea he was on deck. I get out there, and they're like, "Pinch-hitting for the pitcher, Ken Griffey Jr." I'm like, "Sweet!"
This is what you want -- you want to be in that spot. You want to be on the mound facing an All-Century player, a future Hall of Famer. It was a good judging point: Let's see where I'm at now. There were two on and two out. If you make a mistake to him, you're down by three. I was thinking, "Whatever you do, just make sure you throw every pitch with conviction."
The first pitch was a breaking ball for called strike one -- I just threw it as hard as I could. I threw another breaking ball that he fouled off, then a ball, then an inside breaking ball he foul tipped into Eddie Perez's mitt.
I felt awesome: "I just struck out Ken Griffey Jr." Then I was like, "Let's go get some runs."
Question: When you came up you had just 48 professional innings under your belt, about one-sixth of what Dontrelle Willis had. Do you think of yourself as a rookie, if only as a pitcher?
Brooks Kieschnick: I've never really thought of it like being a rookie pitcher. In essence, I am. I'm an experienced rookie.
It's weird to think that I broke camp with the Cubs in 1996, I thought I'd be playing left field for 10, 15 years, a long-time Cub. If they had told me the day I got drafted, "Guess what, in 10 years you're gonna be pitching in the big leagues for the Milwaukee Brewers," I would have said, "Yeah, right."
Question: Do the other guys on the team treat you like a rookie, and give you nasty chores to do?
Brooks Kieschnick: Nah. We've got actual rookies for that.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.