Through the first 6 innings on Wednesday, the Brewers and Pirates played to a 2-2 stalemate between the game’s starters, Yovani Gallardo and Edinson Volquez. Then the bullpen got involved and things got out of hand quickly. When the carnage was over, the Brewers were on the wrong end of an 11-2 decision, their first road loss of the year. The Brewers entered the game with a league leading 1.33 relief ERA, but saw that balloon to a still-above-average 3.16.
It was inevitable that the Brewers pen was going to regress at some point. No modern bullpen is that good, and the Brewers pen was due for a clunker or two regardless. What’s more, the pen has been stretched somewhat thin by a few important factors:
- The injuries to Brandon Kintzler and Tom Gorzelanny have removed two important relievers from last season from the equation and left the bullpen somewhat thinner than it probably will be much of the season. In their place are Rob Wooten and Zach Duke, neither of whom is particularly outstanding.
- The Brewers have been carrying young lefty Wei-Chung Wang all season to avoid having to give him back to the Pirates, despite the fact that they clearly didn’t trust him enough to use him except in cases of being down a significant margin late in games. Since the Brewers got out to a 11-4 start and have only been well behind once before Thursday, it was only his second chance to pitch.
- Finally, the Brewers best setup men, Tyler Thornburg and Will Smith, have both been over pitched this year. Both have gotten into 8 games so far, with Thornburg throwing 9 2/3 innings against Smith’s 7.
As a result of all of the above factors, when the time came for the Brewers bullpen to enter the game in the 7th, manager Ron Roenicke turned first to Rob Wooten. He promptly allowed a decisive two-run home run and then put the next two men on base before retiring Andrew McCutchen and allowing a third run in the process. Southpaw Zach Duke was then brought in to face the Pirates back-to-back lefties. He walked Pedro Alvarez, who was then caught stealing and finally ended the inning by striking out Neil Walker.
In the 8th inning, still trailing by the same 5-2 score, Roenicke elected to go with the young Taiwanese lefty Wei-Chung Wang for only the second time this year. He quickly demonstrated just why the Brewers had hesitated to use him with any lead whatsoever by giving up six runs on a pair of homers, with the Pirates just missing another round tripper off the bat of Jose Tabata. Wang looked every bit the guy who never had pitched above rookie ball before the Brewers nabbed him in the rule 5 draft last December.
Games like this are never fun, but they do happen to just about every team at some point in the season. The good end of a team’s bullpen gets used heavily protecting a number of leads in the preceding weeks, maybe a guy or two is hurt and the team ends up turning a late tie or even a lead over to a less-than-stellar reliever who then puts his team well behind. Then the worst pitcher on the staff is called on for mop-up work, and he puts the game completely out of reach. There is nothing particularly odd about any of this.
The question always comes up, though, whether or not the manager in this situation really needed to hand over a close game to pitchers so obviously out of their depth. There are no clear cut answers to that. Of course, Roenicke could have plausibly turned to Smith, who hasn’t been used all that much the last week after getting in six games the first 11 days of the season and almost certainly was available. Thornburg has been used more in recent days after Kintzler went on the disabled list, moving from a more multiple-inning role to a setup one. Ideally, one of those two would have been the choice in a tie game, but managers have to deal with less-than-ideal circumstances all the time, and this was one of those cases.
With Jim Henderson‘s early struggles with the home run ball, Kintzler’s injury and both Thornburg and Smith being heavily used protecting leads early in the year, it was inevitable that some sort of close game was going to have to be handed over to Wooten and Duke eventually. As much as fans don’t like to hear it, managers must leave their best relievers on the bench in close games from time to time so they don’t end up over used and thus become no longer the team’s best relievers. It’s just part of the game and if it didn’t happen this time, it was bound to happen eventually.
The major question going forward after this bullpen implosion is whether or not the team can really afford to leave Wang in the major leagues all season if he’s going to look like a batting practice pitcher and only be usable when games are basically out of reach. At what point do the Brewers simply have to say “enough” and bring up a less talented but more major league ready arm to use in his “mop up” role?
It’s not a particularly important job, but one of the reasons the team is in this current situation is that they simply didn’t feel comfortable allowing Wang to pitch with any of the late four, five or six run leads that the Brewers had on the last road trip. It should be fairly obvious now why that was, but a team can only tie its hands behind its back like that for so long before the effects start to spill over into close ball games. It’s a delicate balancing act the team is trying to pull off right now for the sake of retaining Wang’s rights and not having to offer him back to the Pirates, but it hardly seems sustainable.
General Manager Doug Melvin said recently that Kintzler was progressing well in his rehab and should be able to come back immediately when his 15 days on the disabled list are up late next week. That should certainly help matters by allowing either him or Thornburg to pitch multiple inning stints in close games like this, but in the meantime Ron Roenicke is going to have some tough decisions to make like this one from time to time. Protecting leads is always going to take precedence over tie or closely trailing situations when it comes to a team’s best relievers, but at least more depth allows teams to deploy better relievers to still-important situations like Thursday night’s.