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Heart heavy, but Gallardo motivated to step up

Young vet has renewed focus for Opening Day 16 months after mother's death

Heart heavy, but Gallardo motivated to step up

PHOENIX -- Yovani Gallardo couldn't shake a heartbreaking habit last season. The Brewers right-hander would return to his locker after a night on the mound, see his phone and instinctively consider calling mom.

Then he'd remember. Mom is gone. Eulalia Gallardo died on Nov. 30, 2012, after a brief battle with cancer. She was 46 and his biggest fan.

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"It's one of those hard things you wish nobody has to go through," Gallardo said. "She was healthy. She was fine. It all happened so fast.

"I still have my dad to talk to, and I'm thankful for that. Both of them are always with me through good and bad. Moms are just different."

***

Gallardo will be the first pitcher in Brewers history to start five consecutive Opening Day games when he takes the mound against the Atlanta Braves on Monday at 1:10 p.m. CT at Miller Park, with a much clearer mind than he possessed at any point in 2013. We know now that Gallardo was already hurting inside when he reported to Spring Training last year, long before a nagging groin strain nearly knocked him out of the World Baseball Classic, before a drunk driving arrest tarnished his image, before a subpar first half left the Brewers searching for reasons a pitcher in his prime would be struggling.

Almost nobody knew at the time that Gallardo's heart was as heavy as his arm. He had shared with only a handful of confidants that his mother had passed away the previous Thanksgiving.

"He's actually never brought it up to me," said right-hander Marco Estrada, who pitched for Team Mexico in the World Baseball Classic last March alongside Gallardo. "I give the guy a lot of credit, because to be able to come out after something so tragic and still be able to do your job the way he did, it's tough.

"I try to think what it would be like if I were in his shoes. I don't even know if you would even see me. I'm an only child, and it's just my mom and I. All I can say is that would be tough."

Said catcher Jonathan Lucroy: "It was kind of hard to tell there was anything wrong with him. I thought he maintained pretty well. Obviously, something like that is going to weigh on you a lot."

From the outside, all appeared well at the start. For the first time, Gallardo reported to camp as the Brewers' unquestioned No. 1 starter, and he was also expected to be No. 1 for Team Mexico in the Classic. Gallardo's status for the tournament was briefly in doubt when he sustained a mild groin strain in early March, but he was able to take the mound amid a charged atmosphere at Chase Field to face Ryan Braun and Team USA in an opening-round game.

Gallardo made the most of 49 pitches, working 3 1/3 innings and striking out four batters while allowing a run on two hits. Mexico beat the Americans, 5-2.

"He dominated," Estrada said. "One of his best games. Not the score or the numbers, but the way he threw the ball, it was just incredible. I'm watching and thinking to myself, 'This is going to be a big year for him.'"

Instead, it wasn't.

Gallardo was a respectable 3-1 with a 4.25 ERA in April, but it was a tough month. He was arrested in the wee hours of April 16 for drunken driving and apologized publicly the next day for what he termed a "bad call." He slipped to 1-4 with a 5.97 ERA during the Brewers' brutal 6-22 May, then rebounded to post a 2.32 ERA in June before falling again to a 7.28 ERA in July and spending time on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring.

The ups and downs puzzled club officials.

"I think we just fired up way too early," Estrada said. "It's tough to fire it up that high and all of a sudden drop back down to Spring Training and work on stuff. You saw in Spring Training how things were different for him after that."

The DL stint allowed Gallardo time to work with pitching coach Rick Kranitz on some mechanical adjustments, particularly the tempo of his delivery. It proved time well spent. The right-hander was 5-2 with a 3.09 ERA following the All-Star break, wound up leading the Brewers in victories (12) for the fourth consecutive season and strikeouts (144) for the fifth straight year.

Those totals fell short of previous seasons -- Gallardo had posted a sub-4.00 ERA and more than 200 strikeouts for four straight seasons prior to 2013 -- but he was able to enter the offseason on a positive note.

"That was huge for me, personally," Gallardo said.

It was important for the ballclub, too.

"This is a really good Major League pitcher, and somewhere along the line, you know that's going to come out," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "The biggest thing for me is the guy knows how to win. Some guys know how to win."

Roenicke realizes he is wading into dangerous sabermetric territory here. He does not care.

"The guys that win year after year, those guys get it," Roenicke said. "A guy like 'Yo' is huge for our success."

***

Today, Gallardo still thinks often about his mom.

"I'm not going to sit here and make excuses," Gallardo said. "But this game is hard enough as it is, and if your mind is not at 100 percent when you're going out there, even if you're still working hard, you're not going to perform the way you want to. It definitely was different."

Eulalia Gallardo was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004, the year the Brewers made Gallardo a second-round Draft pick out of Fort Worth's Trimble Tech High School. She had surgery to remove a series of tumors and remained cancer free for the next eight years until the summer of 2012, when she began complaining of pain in her hip.

In August, the pain persisted, so she returned for more tests. Doctors discovered that her cancer had returned, and they found a non-surgical tumor in her hip. Eulalia underwent oral chemotherapy, but by the start of November, hope for recovery had faded.

The family -- Gallardo's father, his younger brother and two younger sisters -- gathered for a final Thanksgiving. Eulalia was confined to her bed.

"I miss her," Yovani said. "I could pick up the phone any time, call my mom and she wouldn't care what the [pitching] line was that night. She was always pushing me forward, supporting me, motivating me to get better. The few good starts I had last year, every time I came off the mound, I wanted to call her right away, but now it's totally different.

"Even to this day, every time I start, I come off and think, 'I have to call her.' It's one of those things, unfortunately, that you have to adjust to. You have to move on, but it's not easy. It's not easy at all."

Gallardo is 28 and entering the final guaranteed season of his contract, and the Brewers are banking that he'll pitch like the top-flight arm he has been at times in his career. Gallardo was chosen for the Opening Day honor over Kyle Lohse, who had the better 2013 season, and Matt Garza, who was the Brewers' biggest offseason addition, in part because he is "our guy," Roenicke said.

Asked whether this was a big year for him, Gallardo skipped the usual clichés.

"Yes, this year more than any," Gallardo said. "I didn't have the kind of year I wanted last year, and I have to go out there and perform. I have something to prove, that I'm still the kind of pitcher I was before last year. Last year was a tough one, but I was able to make the adjustments in the second half, and I'm excited about this year."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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