At this time last year, Corey Knebel was in Triple-A after pitching to an 8.31 ERA in his first five major-league outings last June after an oblique injury delayed his start to the season.
Now he’s a bona fide major-league closer and will be the Milwaukee Brewers’ lone representative Tuesday night in the All-Star Game in Miami.
“It’s a dream come true,” Knebel said Friday. (He had a nightmarish appearance Saturday in which he allowed a walk-off three-run homer by Clint Frazier in the Yankees’ 5-3 win over the Brewers at Yankee Stadium. It was his fourth blown save in 17 opportunities and his ERA went from 1.11 to 1.76.)
“Not everyone is coming into the season thinking they’re going to be an All-Star. You’re just trying to stay healthy and perform your best, and there are some times when everything kind of works out.”
Knebel was sent down last year to get regularly scheduled work and hone his pitches. “Honestly, getting sent down to Triple-A is kind of one of those reality checks,” he said. “And you come back and try to perform well and you go into the offseason like, ‘It’s not going to happen again.’ So you just have that little edge right there to come back and get back in there.”
Utilizing a 97-mph fastball with an improved curveball, he has struck out 72 in 41 innings. The 2013 first-round selection from the University of Texas has at least one strikeout in all 42 appearances this season, surpassing Aroldis Chapman’s record 37 straight games with a strikeout to start the 2014 season for Cincinnati.
Entering Saturday, opposing hitters had missed on 34.2 percent of the fastballs they’ve swung at against the 25-year-old righthander, according to Baseball Prospectus. Only Jacob deGrom has a higher percentage among the 61 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 fastballs this season.
Knebel, who was traded to the Brewers in 2015 in a deal that sent Yovani Gallardo to Texas, credits manager Craig Counsell for his success. With a new-look bullpen after a flurry of trades, Knebel had the opportunity and desire to close. He tied the single-season saves record at Texas as a freshman and wants to be the one with the ball at the end of the game.
He opened this season as the setup man but has served as the closer since converting his first opportunity May 14.
“I think he’s used all of those experiences and just came into spring training with really something to prove,” Counsell said Friday. “He knew he was going to take on a bigger role this year with guys like [Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith] gone for the whole season and he was going to pitch very important innings for us. He’s taken everything we’ve given him and handled it beautifully, really.”
“Whenever you know the manager has complete confidence in you, it builds your confidence,” Knebel said. “It gives you that little edge right there, so I go in there and know I’m not giving in and my stuff’s better than the hitter I’m facing. That’s just how you have to think.”
But Knebel’s exciting year goes beyond the diamond. On July 2 — the same day he found out he was an All-Star — Knebel learned the gender of his baby in the only environment he could imagine.
“Our life is surrounded by baseball,” he said. “So we’re having a baby in the offseason, why not have a baby reveal on the field?”
So that’s exactly what they did. The original plan to have Knebel toss a team-created baseball to his wife, Danielle, as she held a bat was nixed because she feared she might swing and miss — a fate known well by National League hitters. Instead, Danielle tossed the ball to Knebel. When he made contact, pink dust exploded onto the Brewers’ Miller Park field as the couple learned they’d be having a baby girl in November.
“She threw it 0-and-2, up and in, high and tight on me,” Knebel joked. “Little bit nervous, but a great feeling to bust that ball open and it was pink. Huge blessing.”
Blessings have been plentiful on and off the field for Knebel and the first-place Brewers. He has earned his share of the accolades for holding down many of those wins, but he diverts the credit back to the team.
“Most of this wouldn’t happen if we aren’t doing how well we are,” Knebel said. “So we’re riding it out right now and we’re having fun.”