Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bullpen Matters

The season is merely 9 games old - and that there is still a lot of baseball left to play - and through the course of a season, ups and downs are inevitable, but right now, any Rays' fan has to be at least a little concerned about the bullpen.

Sure, it's 9 games into the season and the pen went through rough patches last year, but nothing like this.

Through the first 9 games, the Rays couldn't have asked for much better out of their starters: 54 IP while giving up a mere 25 earned runs - for an ERA of 4.17 - not great, but those numbers are skewed by the fact that Shields, Sonnanstine, and Niemann all gave up 5 runs in one game. The other 6 starts of the season, the starting pitching has really kept the Rays in the game.

The problem comes in with the bullpen. In those close games, right now, the bullpen is not working towards the goal of closing out the game. They seem intimidated, and less than zealous.

First, a look inside the bullpen numbers: zero wins and 2 loses, 24 1/3 innings, 15 earned runs for an ERA of 5.55. Sure, that number is only 1.38 runs per 9 innings higher than the starters, but the bullpen is supposed to be there to shut down the game. These pitchers are specialty pitchers, and should be able to pitch one inning of scoreless ball per night (on an individual level) and that just isn't happening right now.

Balfour looks like he needs to regain his fire. He has lost 6-8 MPH on his fastball over last season - that fastball that allowed him to average over 12 K's per 9 innings pitched! Without that fastball, well, Balfour is hittable, and it shows - as he only has 1 strikeout in 1 2/3 innings pitched while giving up 4 earned runs - that's an ERA of 21.60 for those of you keeping track - and that isn't even a good number for someone pitching class A ball.

Howell has given up too many hits, and while I don't know if it's been good hitting rather than poor pitching, that trend cannot last. Howell was masterful last season in stranding runners - this year, he is putting more and more runners on base - already giving up 7 hits, one hit batsman, and 1 walk in only 4 1/3 innings (for a WHIP of 2.077). This is a trend that needs to end quickly, or Howell, and the Rays, will be in for a long, long season.

Dan Wheeler also appears shaken, but in his defense, even last season he seemed to have that "deer in headlights" look about him - so it's hard to conclude if there is actually anything wrong with Wheeler - sans a home run he gave up in the 9th to the Yankees - he may be fine, but with only 1 2/3 innings of work, it's hard to say if this will be a growing trend.

Troy Percival is someone we all love! He's been a commanding presence in the Rays' pen, and was surely needed last season as this pitchers matured - and could be helpful this season if he can help pull the current bullpen leaders out of their collective funk. The problem is, Percival is also currently in a funk - having given up two runs in only 1 2/3 innings (ERA of 10.80). He did manage one save against Boston, but not without the fans being forced to endure a rally by the Sox. Also, he took the loss against the Yankees in the rubber game of that series - failing to get a mere 2 outs in the 9th inning before giving up the go-ahead, and eventual winning, run.

The bullpen, however, hasn't been without its highlights. Lance Cormier, Joe Nelson, and Brian Shouse have all been pitching well with a collective ERA of 2.03. All three of these pitchers weren't even on the Rays' roster last year - but they all look like they belong, and want to win games.

Do the guys that were here last season, think they are so much better now that they won? Do they fail to realize there is a target on their backs? Something needs to give in a big way - other wise, Cormier, Nelson, and Shouse will be over used - but at least the Rays can get some W's.

Chad Bradford has begun throwing again - limiting his action to the long toss. Soon, hopefully, he can get on a mound to make some throws, so he can get back in the pen that is imploding, and hopefully provide some added stability. Sadly, Maddon will likely send Cormier or Nelson to AAA Durham to generate the added roster space needed for Bradford's arm - and right now, that would be a mistake. If Balfour can't find that burning desire to go with a burning fastball, he should be that odd man out, but Maddon is too loyal - at least in times like these.

Yes, it is early in the season, and not yet time to mash the panic button - but every win counts over the course of a baseball season, and the bullpen cannot continue to give back masterful games by the starters. The Rays won a lot of one run ball games a season ago - mostly through perfection out of the bullpen as Howell and Balfour combined to strand a ridiculous amount of runners - they need to find that magic again, or those close wins from a year ago, will pile on in the loss column this season.

It's frustrating, it's losing, it's baseball, and it happens. The real test will be in the bullpen breaking the trend. The real test will be to right the ship. If they can pitch half as good as last season, there shouldn't be any lingering issues with the bullpen as a whole. Only time will tell - and 9 games isn't nearly enough time to call the pen a failure and chalk the team up to its historical losing ways.

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