Aquino, a right-hander acquired with starter Claudio Vargas and catcher Johnny Estrada in a November trade with the Diamondbacks, is one of three frontrunners for the last open spot in the Milwaukee bullpen. Right-handers Jose Capellan and Chris Spurling and left-hander Joe Thatcher are still technically in the mix, though it's likely Thatcher will be returned to Minor League camp.
Since he surrendered five earned runs in two-thirds of an inning against the White Sox on March 14, Aquino has allowed just one hit and no runs in four outings spanning 5 2/3 innings. His ERA has fallen from 9.64 to 4.35, and Aquino credits the change to that newly tightened slider.
"I feel really good now," Aquino said after a scoreless inning of work against the A's on Tuesday. "It made a big difference."
Bullpen coach Bill Castro worked with Aquino on mechanical adjustments to take some of the break out of his slider. It now more closely resembles Aquino's fastball, and his command of the pitch has improved.
"He was making a lot of mistakes with it, hanging it over the plate, especially to lefties," Castro said. "When he gets more comfortable with it, he will be able to get it to break bigger. Right now, it's baby steps."
Brewers manager Ned Yost also noticed that Aquino locked in once he began working with his former teammate Estrada. It's no coincidence, Aquino said.
"Everything he calls, I throw," Aquino said.
Said Estrada: "He's a sinker, slider guy. It's no secret, but I think he trusts me. When he's on, he's nasty, and I've found that he pitches better when he's out there [ticked] off. So when I'm catching him, I try to fire [the ball] right back after every pitch, keep him going. When you're a one- or two-inning guy like he is, why not get after it?"
Aquino and Capellan have Minor League options remaining, and Spurling is in camp on a Minor League contract, so the team's decision will come down to performance, Yost said. Capellan, who pitched in 61 games for the Brewers last season, pitched a clean inning on Wednesday and has not allowed a run in consecutive appearances for the first time this spring. Spurling was knocked around on Tuesday, but he has made eight scoreless appearances this spring.
"It's always good to have those tough decisions," Yost said. "It's nice to have a decision between three guys doing well. I'd rather do that than make a decision between three guys throwing the ball bad."
Good news, bad news: Veteran right-hander Elmer Dessens was sharp in his Brewers debut, retiring all three hitters he faced in Wednesday's 8-6 win over the Giants. The team acquired Dessens from the Dodgers on Monday for outfielder Brady Clark.
Dessens will work long relief for the Brewers, and his arrival means righty Carlos Villanueva, who was enjoying a solid spring until a wild outing Wednesday, will get middle- and late-inning work.
"They're guys that are durable and you can abuse them a little bit," Yost said of having a veteran long man. "They're very, very valuable guys to have on the staff. You'd rather have a bit more veteran presence in that spot than you would a guy like Carlos. I think Elmer is going to be a huge part of that bullpen."
Villanueva worked one-plus inning on Wednesday, allowing three runs on three hits and three walks. He worked a scoreless sixth inning, but in the seventh, he was saddled with four runs, three of them earned. Yost attributed the command issues to the windy, dry conditions. Villanueva's ERA ballooned from a team-best 2.25 to 4.15.
Villanueva has a foot in the door, but he has not been told whether he has made the team. The 23-year-old insisted that his uncertain status did not affect his outing.
"You think about it, but you have to try not to," Villanueva said. "I have a couple of days left. It can't kill me to wait two or three days."
On the block: Beginning Thursday at noon CT, fans can bid on retro Milwaukee Braves jerseys worn by Brewers players and coaches in recent years. Proceeds will go toward funding of the Milwaukee Braves Historical Society's 50th anniversary event, scheduled for this August.
The featured jerseys include game-worn uniforms from "Turn Back the Clock" Night on Aug. 26, 2005, when the Brewers took on the Atlanta Braves at Miller Park. Each jersey is individually autographed by a Brewers player or coach.
In the Minors: Brewers Minor Leaguers played an exhibition game Wednesday against the Chinese National Team, which is managed by former Brewers coach Jim Lefebvre and has been touring camps in Arizona this month.
When the Minor League clubs break camp next week, most of the 35 Team China players will join nine MLB organizations in Arizona and Florida for two weeks of extended Spring Training. Because the Brewers disbanded their Dominican program several years ago, they didn't have room in camp for any Chinese players.
"Collectively, we're not ready to compete with these teams on a day-to-day basis," Lefebvre told MLB.com earlier this month. "Our guys just aren't experiencing the thrill of winning often enough, and if our players go play with better players and see how they train, it will broaden their view."
In the Class A game, top catching prospect Angel Salome saw live pitching for the first time and collected three hits. Salome suffered a major ankle injury last August.
"He had already caught a few games but was not allowed to hit until [Wednesday]," Brewers farm director Reid Nichols said. "He's about to graduate to full-game status."
Also on Wednesday, the Triple-A Nashville Sounds announced that the Brewers had released outfielder Kennard Bibbs, a 2002 draft pick. Bibbs injured his knee during the offseason and was expected to miss all of 2007.
Last call: Ben Sheets was unremarkable in his final spring start, allowing two runs on eight hits in four-plus innings. His next start is Opening Day, April 2, against the Dodgers at Miller Park. "I don't like anything about Arizona but leaving," Sheets said. ... Third baseman Tony Graffanino was not in the starting lineup, but he drew a pinch-hit walk and scored a run on Wednesday. He left Monday's game in Tucson with back spasms but was able to hit off a tee Wednesday morning. ... The Brewers held a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning to go over third-base coach Nick Leyva's signs. ... The team wraps up the Arizona portion of its Spring Training schedule on Wednesday, when Chris Capuano starts against right-hander Matt Hensley and the Angels at Maryvale Baseball Park. The exclusive MLB.com Webcast starts one hour earlier than usual, at 2 p.m. CT. After the game, the Brewers will travel to Texas, where they are scheduled to play the Rangers on Friday and Saturday.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less