Guerra's rise continues with Opening Day nod

Right-hander didn't make Brewers roster for last season's opener

Guerra's rise continues with Opening Day nod

PHOENIX -- Last season, Junior Guerra did not even crack the Brewers' Opening Day roster. This season, he is the team's pick to start on Opening Day.

Guerra's assignment against the Rockies at home on April 3, announced by manager Craig Counsell on Saturday before Guerra got his work in a Minor League game, continues the 32-year-old's stunning rise from six years out of affiliated baseball to the top of Milwaukee's starting rotation.

"There was a point I thought I was done playing," Guerra said. "I got the support from my wife [Erika]. She told me to keep going. Keep working hard and the opportunity will come."

Pushed out of affiliated ball in 2009 following a Minor League drug suspension, Guerra pitched in Venezuela, Mexico, Spain, Italy and for an Independent team in Wichita, Kan., before hooking on with the White Sox for '15. Armed with a split-fingered fastball he'd mastered along the way, Guerra made it to Chicago's bullpen by September and, when he was placed on waivers in October, he drew notice from the Brewers' analytics and pro scouting departments under new general manager David Stearns.

The Brewers won the claim, making Guerra the first player acquired under Stearns' watch.

But there was one more stop before Milwaukee. Guerra opened 2016 at Triple-A Colorado Springs before a call to the Majors in the first days of May.

Guerra went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 Brewers starts, recovering from a month-long stint on the disabled list for right elbow inflammation to finish the season in good health. He was named Milwaukee's pitcher of the year by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Guerra fans two over three

Guerra edged Zach Davies for that honor, and for the Opening Day nod.

"He pitched really well last year," Counsell said of Guerra. "I know he had a different story. But for his 120 innings, he was really one of the better starters in the National League. That's what it boils down to."

At none of his many previous baseball stops did Guerra pitch a season opener, he said.

"Now I've got the opportunity here, and I have to be real thankful," he said.

Counsell did not make any pronouncements beyond naming Guerra for Opening Day, though Davies is lined up to start Game 2. The other starter candidates are Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta, Matt Garza, Chase Anderson and Tommy Milone, and every spot is important, Counsell said.

"There's five starters, there's the same number of games and one of them has to pitch the first day," Counsell said. "Look, it's a ceremonial day and an important day, I understand. But we get into the pace of the season, and all of those guys pitching well is what's going to be important."

It starts April 3 with Guerra.

"It has been a really long journey," Guerra said. "You've got to be really grateful for the opportunity, and just get ready and keep working hard."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.