At the beginning of the seventh inning of the Brewers’ 2-0 win over Atlanta on Monday, I thought I spotted what would be a talking point for fans in the coming days: the decision to have setup man Brandon Kintzler pitch the seventh rather than the eighth. At the time, I imagined that this was some sort of indication that Francisco Rodriguez would be starting the year higher on the relief-pitcher hierarchy than Kintzler, something that surely would not sit well with a large segment of Brewers fans. Instead, a couple of somewhat unexpected things happened en route to the opening day victory.
In the past, manager Ron Roenicke has been something of a slave to the idea of very rigidly set bullpen roles. Few Brewers fans will forget his seeming need to have a set “8th inning guy” in 2011. Roenicke did show some progress on this front over the past few seasons, though it was often hard to tell if this was due to a change of heart on his part or simply a product of necessity. Hopefully what happened in the eighth inning Monday will become more of a regular occurrence.
With two powerful lefties, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, due that inning, Roenicke turned to his new left-handed reliever, Will Smith. He promptly retired the Braves 1-2-3 with a strikeout and a couple of ground outs. That presumably left the ninth inning to Jim Henderson, who had notched 28 saves last year and seemed to be the unquestioned choice.
Much to the surprise of the home fans, though, it was Rodriguez rather than Henderson who came out to finish off the Braves. Despite giving up a single and a long foul ball, Rodriguez struck out two and walked no one and notched the first save of the season. After the game, Roenicke explained his reasoning:
“We had a conversation about Henderson yesterday, and until we feel like he’s throwing the way he can and was last year, we’re going to put him in a role that we can give him a couple outings to get his stuff back and his confidence going,” Roenicke said. “That’s just a decision we had to make. I talked to him about it and I talked to Frankie today about closing. We feel good about it.”
While it’s never a good thing when a pitcher loses some of his edge, it’s at least encouraging to see that the team got out in front of a problem before it resulted in a loss or two. They didn’t like what they were seeing from Henderson’s stuff, so they pulled the trigger on demoting him from high leverage pitching, at least for the time being. Many clubs and managers (including perhaps this one a few years ago) would probably just take the path of least resistance and wait until their hand was forced.
The idea of Rodriguez closing isn’t particularly appetizing, but closers are overrated and at least the team seems to have their three best non-Tyler Thornburg relievers set to close out games for now. There also appears to be some flexibility in how they are deployed, though that probably won’t extend as far as using Smith in the ninth inning should Heyward and Freeman end up coming to the plate later this series then as opposed to in the 7th or 8th.
It remains to be seen just how long this might last and how far it might be extended. For the time being, at least, this seems to be making the best of a less-than-ideal situation. In baseball, that’s generally not a terrible place to be.