Notes: Playing winter ball beneficial

Brewers notes: Winter ball beneficial

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers bullpen coach Bill Castro has some advice for any young pitcher on the cusp of the Major Leagues: Take your game to the Latin Winter Leagues first.

"I can speak from my own experience, the best thing that they can do is play winter ball," said Castro, who hails from the Dominican Republic. "When I signed [with the Brewers in 1970] I played winter ball, and when I came here it wasn't as big of a deal to me.

"There's more pressure for, say, a Dominican player, in winter ball than in the big leagues here. More pressure from the ownership, from the fans, so you're already exposed to all of that stress."

Twenty-two-year-old Brewers right-hander Carlos Villanueva has been through it, and Castro and manager Ned Yost believe the experience is part of the reason Villanueva has succeeded since a promotion from Double-A Huntsville.

Called into action in the third inning on Wednesday night to relieve a struggling Rick Helling, Villanueva surrendered three quick runs, but was able to get through the remainder of the game. His effort spared the rest of the Brewers' bullpen from overwork.

Five days earlier, Villanueva pitched six scoreless innings in his first Major League start, an assignment made even tougher by the fact he pitched against the potent Reds at a hitter's haven, Great American Ball Park.

"I pitched in the Winter Leagues for the first time in 2004, when I was just a kid coming out of low [Class] A in the Midwest League. The first game I pitched there, we were on the road against our biggest rival and there were 15,000 people in the stands," said Villanueva, who played for Aguilas. "Now, 15,000 in the Dominican is like 50,000 here because they're so much more intense. It has definitely helped."

Teammates who were particularly helpful to Villanueva included current Orioles shortstop and Dominican superstar Miguel Tejada, and former Major League right-hander Hipolito Pichardo. Villanueva got to test his stuff against Major League opponents like Ronnie Belliard and Jose Guillen.

"It told me that I could pitch in the big leagues," Villanueva said. "That was my mentality. It helped the confidence level, dealing with the pressure situations."

Because they were poised to put Villanueva on the 40-man roster for the first time and wanted him well-rested for his first Major League Spring Training, Brewers officials dissuaded Villanueva from playing last winter, he said.

Suite digs: The Brewers unveiled a pair of themed party suites on Wednesday that honor the 1982 American League champion Brewers and the 1957 world champion Milwaukee Braves.

The cost is $4,200 per game ($5,000 for games against the Cubs), and includes 30 game tickets, four preferred parking passes, a buffet dinner, snacks, soft drinks and beer. Additional tickets are available for $35 each. For information, fans can call 414-902-4100.

"With the new Mercedes Field Haus selling out in less than two weeks after it was put on sale, we have seen evidence of the very strong demand for all-inclusive, first-class group entertaining areas," Brewers executive vice president of business operations Rick Schlesinger said.

Each suite contains photos and color schemes representing the teams, and is furnished with hardwood floors and three 50-inch high definition televisions.

Helling stays put: Yost said he intends to start Helling on regular five days' rest on Sunday at Kansas City, and is leaning toward using left-hander Zach Jackson in the other unsettled rotation spot on Tuesday against the Chicago Cubs.

That means Villanueva will remain in the bullpen as a long reliever. Yost said he intends to split the No. 5 starter's spot between Jackson and Villanueva based on opponents' statistical splits versus left-handers and right-handers.

Helling surrendered seven runs, including a pair of Magglio Ordonez homers, in his return from the disabled list on Tuesday night. He had not pitched since April 10 because of a sprained ligament in his right elbow.

Memory lane: Helling remembers a stop on the Texas Rangers' Winter Caravan in the early 1990s. A young fan, 16 or 17 years old at the time, approached Helling, who was the Rangers' first-round draft pick in 1992.

"He came to the Caravan to get an autograph, I'll never forget it," Helling said. "He was like, 'I'm going to play for the Rangers some day!'"

Helling laughed it off. But that kid was Craig Monroe, a Texarkana, Tex., native drafted by the Rangers in the eighth round in 1995. In 2001, Helling and Monroe were Major League teammates, and this week they met again as Helling and the Brewers faced Monroe and the Tigers.

"Sure enough, he got some big-league time," Helling said. "I've known about him for a long time."

In the Minors: The Brewers announced that 2005 first-round draft pick Ryan Braun would be promoted from Class A Brevard County to Double-A Huntsville. Braun hit .269 at Brevard County with seven home runs and 36 RBIs and was a member of the Florida State League All-Star team last weekend.

Also on Wednesday, Braun was named to the U.S. squad for the 2006 All-Star Futures Game in Pittsburgh. Fast-rising teammate Yovani Gallardo will pitch for the World squad.

Triple-A Nashville pitching coach Stan Kyles will serve as a coach for the U.S. team. The game is scheduled for July 9, at 3 p.m. CT and will be televised live on ESPN2.

On deck: After a day off Thursday, the Brewers continue the Interleague schedule with three games in Kansas City. Right-hander Dave Bush is scheduled to start the opener for the Brewers against Royals right-hander Bobby Keppel.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.