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Good bullpens make playoff contenders

By Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune –

Want to have a good team? Then build a good bullpen.

Relief pitchers often seem like afterthoughts, especially the guys who wind up working the sixth and seventh innings. But they are vitally important when it comes to run prevention, which is what winning baseball is all about.

Among the 10 teams with the lowest bullpen ERAs, seven were positioned to make the playoffs and another (the A’s) was only 11/2 games out of a spot. And where would the Orioles, A’s and the Dodgers be without their improved bullpens?

“A bullpen is the most underrated part of a team,” says Jim Bowden, the former Reds and Nationals general manager who works for ESPN and SiriusXM. “You have to pound out those (middle innings) and finish games.”

The Orioles ranked 27th in the majors with a 4.18 ERA last year, and have improved to third, with a 2.98 mark, this year. Guys like Darren O’Day, Luis Ayala and a full season of Pedro Strop have made a tremendous difference. The A’s (18th to second) and the Dodgers (24th to ninth) have become contenders through similar improvements.

On the other end of the equation, a bad bullpen makes it really tough to win. Just ask the 2-7 Cliff Lee.

Josh Lindblom’s blown save behind him Thursday marked the third time this year the bullpen cost him a victory. Manager Charlie Manuel always seems to be worrying about his bullpen, but it ranked eighth in the majors in ERA in 2011; it’s 25th this year.

But no team put together to contend has known more late-inning horrors than the Brewers.

Ron Roenicke’s bullpen was sixth in the National League with a 3.32 ERA last year but has fallen to 29th with a 4.80 mark. The Brewers have 23 blown saves, 29 bullpen losses, a save ratio of only 52 percent and a WHIP from relievers of 1.55. They have suffered 10 walkoff losses and 24 overall when the opponent went ahead in its last at-bat.

Those are twisted numbers.

“It’s the same thing (over and over again),” Roenicke told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week. “We play good baseball and then give it up in the end.”

Brewers general manager Doug Melvin allowed Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins to leave as free agents after last season. But the guys who turned into team killers were the ones who stayed — closer John Axford (46-for-48 in saves, with a 1.95 ERA last year; 18-for-26, with a 5.14 this year) and $8-million setup man Francisco Rodriguez.

Axford and Rodriguez have been so bad that Roenicke has been juggling Kameron Loe and 29-year-old rookie Jim Henderson in save situations along with Axford and Rodriguez. Henderson needed 10 years in the minors before getting his shot last month.

“Give me some options,” Roenicke recently said to reporters. “You harp on me about this but you don’t have any options for me. It’s a hard thing to do when you don’t have two or three guys who are throwing well. When you have two or three guys, you can cover the games you’re winning. When you don’t have that many guys throwing well, you can’t cover all the innings every night. That’s impossible.”

If you can’t get the big outs in the last three innings, you won’t play in the big games in October.

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Gaining steam: White Sox GM Ken Williams rarely has been more publicly distraught than he was after hearing of the Tigers’ trade for Miguel Cabrera at the winter meetings in 2007. He was working to get him from the Marlins but the Tigers offered to take on Dontrelle Willis’ bad money in the deal and just like that one of baseball’s most feared hitters had gone to a division rival, not the Sox.

Ozzie Guillen talked about Cabrera having 70-homer seasons at U.S. Cellular. While that hasn’t happened in Motown, he has become the first Tiger ever to have 30-plus five years in a row, which is awfully impressive.

Cabrera’s 30th on Wednesday was an opposite-field blast into a stiff wind at Target Field.

“He hit that ball like a left-hander hits it,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “The wind was blowing in from there, and he’s just so strong. He seemed like he flicked it.”

Cabrera had been tied with Hank Greenberg and Cecil Fielder with four straight 30-homer seasons. He reached the 100-RBI mark a night earlier to become the first Tiger to reach that five-year plateau since Charlie Gehringer in 1932-36. He has had triple-figure RBIs all nine years of his career. Imagine if he had been hitting alongside Paul Konerko the last five seasons …


Ground zero: Melky Cabrera’s suspension continued the trend of the Giants being in the eye of baseball’s steroid scandal more than any other franchise.

In addition to Barry Bonds and the proximity to the BALCO lab that was tied to PED use in baseball, football and track and field, the Giants started Jose Guillen in right field throughout the 2010 season until he was connected to a shipment of human growth hormone and employed reliever Guillermo Mota when he was hit with his second steroid suspension. They signed him despite his first ban.

The pattern suggests tolerance, but the Giants feel more like victims as they worry about this season going down the tubes without Cabrera, who had been their most productive hitter.

“This is something you can’t control,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “It has been all over baseball.”

The Giants are starting Gregor Blanco in Cabrera’s spot while they work to add a hitter to replace Cabrera.

“We’ve all been around the game a long time,” GM Brian Sabean said. “We’re used to making changes and adjustments, as we do in life. This is one of those things where you’re punched in the stomach, but you have no choice and you have to move on.”

The Giants had talked about a long-term contract for Cabrera, who is eligible for free agency. They’re not bringing him back now but you know somebody’s going to sign him, albeit at a lot less than he would have gotten if he had beaten the test.


The last word: “I tried to get to home plate quick enough, but I’m not Speedy Gonzales.” — Rangers manager Ron Washington on not being able to intervene before Ian Kinsler was ejected for the third time this year, most among big-league players.


The Whispers: Tigers have some interesting combos going

The Tigers are working on a pair of interesting distinctions. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have a chance to be the first teammates to start all 162 games since the Rangers’ Mark Teixeira and Michael Young in 2006, and Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer have a chance to be the first teammates to strike out 240-plus since Kerry Wood and Mark Prior with the 2003 Cubs. … Prior’s career may be over after the Red Sox released him. He hasn’t been in the big leagues since ‘06 but threw 25 innings for Triple-A Pawtucket, attempting to earn a bullpen job. He’s only 31 so maybe he will try again next year. … There is no chance that the Nationals are going to try to juggle Stephen Strasburg’s innings so he can pitch in the playoffs. General manager Mike Rizzo and Scott Boras, Strasburg’s agent, reached an agreement on workload a long time ago and Rizzo is going to honor it, although Boras says Strasburg wants to pitch. … For what it’s worth, based on how guys have pitched over the last four years, you can argue the Nats would line up their playoff starters this way — Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Strasburg and either Ross Detwiler or Edwin Jackson. It’s not like they’ll have no chance to win a playoff series without him. … Felix Hernandez’s perfect game was the third no-hitter in four months at Safeco Field; Wrigley Field hasn’t had one in 40 years. … Another odd factoid: the Rays have been on the wrong end of three perfect games in the last four years — by Mark Buehrle in ‘09 and Dallas Braden in ‘10 before Hernandez. Maybe that’s why Joe Maddon went over the top trying to throw Hernandez out of rhythm. Maddon was ejected arguing balls and strikes in the seventh inning, and said he felt he had to do something about the size of umpire Rob Drake’s strike zone. He says he was trying to help his team win but admitted he did not feel it necessary to extend any courtesies to Hernandez. Have to like an honest man. … If the Rangers were truly bold, they would trade Michael Young to the Cubs for Alfonso Soriano. Young has lost the ability to drive the ball, and his playing time will be an ongoing issue for manager Ron Washington. … The Braves are going with a six-man rotation the next two times through the rotation, and Fredi Gonzalez says performance will determine who moves to the bullpen. Kris Medlen is the likely man out but he has pitched very well as a replacement for Tommy Hanson.

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