Brewers bullpen proves reliable early on

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Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, April 20, 2014

In a media session the morning of the Brewers’ season opener, general manager Doug Melvin was asked what topped his list of concerns about his ball club.

“I think in baseball today—and not just our club—when you see the lack of complete games from starting pitchers over a 162-game season, the bullpens are a big factor, and I’m always concerned about that,” Melvin said.

In winning nine games in a row at one point and getting off to one of their best starts in years, the Brewers enjoyed most stellar work from their relief corps. It wasn’t until Thursday night in Pittsburgh, in the team’s 16th game of the season, the bullpen finally turned in a stinker, with Rob Wooten and rookie Wei-Chung Wang yielding nine runs over the final two innings.

Because of all the moving parts, bullpens often run hot and cold. And there are still some problems to work out in the Brewers’ relief corps: Will former closer Jim Henderson regain his previous form? Will Rule 5 draft pick Wang contribute enough to stay on the roster all season? Will Brandon Kintzler have to work out some rust after returning from the disabled list?

As long as veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez continues locking down games in the ninth inning, manager Ron Roenicke will mix and match in front of him. Left-hander Will Smith has been a revelation in a setup role, keeping teams off the board thus far, and former closer Tyler Thornburg quickly emerged as a key arm in high-leverage situations.

“Will Smith can do whatever we want,” said Roenicke. “Thornburg can do it, too. You have to have guys who can go multiple innings, and we have that.

“I expect good things through the season. We’ll try to manage them right where we’re not overusing too many of the guys.”

Sometimes, you start a season with a relief corps that you think will be top-notch and it melts down. Other times, you’re not sure what you have and the bullpen unexpectedly becomes a strength.

“I knew we’d have a good bullpen,” said Smith, a former starting pitcher. “We have confidence and believe in ourselves. You have to have that to be successful.

“We’re keeping it loose; keeping it fun. But we know when it’s work time and we get down to business. We’ve been throwing the ball well down there. Our job is to put up as many zeros as we can, whether we’re winning or losing. That’s the attitude we have down there.”

Defense doesn’t rest

It remains to be seen if the Brewers get more offense out of their first base duo of Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay than the variety of suspects who rotated at the position last season. Entering Saturday, they had combined for a .642 OPS, slightly higher than the historically bad .629 OPS at first base last season.

But one thing is certain: The defense at the position is tremendously improved from the 2013 season, when Brewers first basemen committed a major-league high 21 errors (no other team had more than 14). Reynolds made the first error at the position this season when he collided with third baseman Aramis Ramirez on a pop-up Friday night in Pittsburgh.

Reynolds atoned for that miscue with two web gems in the ninth inning as the Brewers held on for a 5-3 win.

“Our first basemen have been fabulous defensively thus far,” said Roenicke. “I can probably name eight plays that we’ve made that we probably don’t make last year. It makes a big difference. Both of them have made plays.

“It’s not just the errors. It’s the plays you don’t make. Every ball that’s thrown in the dirt that you don’t pick is not an error on you. It’s an error on the other guy. You save the other guy; you save the pitching staff from making all kinds of extra pitches.

“It’s hard to put a number on what it is, but that adds to a player’s pluses for the team. I don’t care if you’re driving in runs or saving runs. It’s the same thing. They save runs but they also save the pitching staff. Your starter can go more innings and you don’t have to use as many relievers. That’s why I don’t know what numbers to put on it.”

Fast-forward offense

With free-swinging hitters throughout their lineup, the Brewers entered Saturday with only 38 walks, the second-fewest in the league. But there is another consequence to being ultra-aggressive at the plate.

By taking fewer pitches and not working counts, the Brewers are allowing opposing pitchers to work deeper into games. In the 11-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday—a game that was tied, 2-2, after six innings—Pirates starter Edinson Volquez needed only 77 pitches to get through seven innings.

By contrast, Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo was done after throwing 114 pitches through six innings.

“There’s not a lot you can do about it,” said Roenicke. “That’s the personnel we have. We’re free swingers, and so we’ve got to hit the ball all through the lineup. We’re not going to be an on-base team. We’ll have to bash the ball.”

As for whether that approach is frustrating at times to watch for both him and hitting coach Johnny Narron, Roenicke said, “Ideally, you want a certain type of hitter. But all hitters aren’t that way. This is what these guys have done in their career, and they’ve gotten here and been successful at it.

“You get a little smarter as you play; you understand what pitches you can handle. And, hopefully, you get better at that.”

The shifting sands

Utility player Elian Herrera, who spent time with the Brewers over the weekend while Overbay was on paternity leave, had an interesting path to becoming a versatile infielder/outfielder. When signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2003 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Herrera was a catcher.

After playing only 15 games in the Dominican Summer League because of an elbow injury that year, Herrera returned home with a goal of building more strength in his legs to cope with the rigors of catching. Each morning, he would go to a nearby beach and run in the sand.

“That made my legs stronger, so I just keep running,” said Herrera. “I wore shoes because my dad wouldn’t let me run without them because you don’t know what might be in the sand—a broken bottle or something like that.”

When Herrera returned to the Dodgers’ Dominican Academy the next spring, players were timed in the 60-yard dash. The previous year, he ran the 60 in 7.4 seconds.

This time, the coach doing the timing couldn’t believe his eyes. The stopwatch said 6.7 seconds.

“They said, ‘Elian, run it again because we do it wrong,’” he recalled. “I ran it again and this time I have a 6.6. They said they wanted to try me in the outfield where I could use my speed. They knew I could throw.

“But then there were so many outfielders who could hit home runs, there was a lot of competition. So they said they wanted to see me play the infield. Then, they said, ‘OK, you’re going to be a second baseman.’ I stopped catching after that except I would help warm up pitchers in the bullpen.”

And thus was born a super utility player who can play three infield positions as well as each outfield spot.

It’s a kids game

Some baseball players find second careers after they hang up their spikes. But not many go on to be authors of children’s books.

Former big-league outfielder Ken Berry, who played for the Brewers in 1974, will be in Milwaukee this week to participate in a book reading at MPS schools, a program sponsored by SHARP Literacy, Inc.

Berry, 72, a technical adviser on the film “Eight Men Out” in 1988, didn’t start writing books until three years ago. He has authored seven books in his “Apples and Animals” series, all of which impart some type of lesson to children.

On Thursday, Berry will be at Victory School for the Gifted and Talented and Italian Immersion Program at 2222 W. Henry Ave. from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. On Friday, he will be at Trowbridge School of Discovery and Technology at 1943 Trowbridge St. from 1 p.m. to 2:15 p.m.

The public is invited to meet Berry before and after his readings.

Tom Haudricourt covers the Brewers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email him at thaudricourt@journalsentinel.com.

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