Four games into the season is no time to start panicking, but it can give glimpses of what is to come.
We know Aramis Ramirez can still drive in runs; Ryan Braun will be just fine after his off-season drama; Ron Roenicke is making a point to manufacture runs; the bullpen–specifically, the middle relief– has glaring weaknesses.
Monday night’s game at Wrigley was the opportune time for relieve Brewers fans of their anxieties over the bullpen. Leading 7-3 in the ninth after six quality innings from starter Shaun Marcum and scoreless frames from Jose Veras and Francisco Rodriguez, a soothing finish seemed to be set in stone.
Manny Parra came out to pitch the ninth and immediately gave up a double to Cubs third baseman Ian Stewart. After recording an out, Parra gave way to the side-winding right hander Tim Dillard. Dillard did no better, walking his one and only batter while displaying poor command. John Axford then came in to save the mess and did so, but not without high tension.
After an error, single, strikeout, and walk, Starlin Castro came to the plate with the bases full and trailing 7-5. Axford struck him out on three pitches to end the game and notch the save, but not settling the middle relief questions.
Sure, the Brewers defense could have helped the cause in the ninth. The game appeared over after Axford induced a Marlon Byrd grounder with ‘double play’ written all over it to Aramis Ramirez at third, but the ball bounced off his glove and caromed into foul territory. Regardless, however, Parra and Dillard failed to close out the game without Roenicke having to call upon Axford.
While the 7th-8th-9th combination of Veras, Rodriguez, and Axford has yielded few to no problems (Axford’s 13.50 era is a bit
misleading as a result of a two-out homer off Kameron Loe that plated two inherited runners of Axford’s), the middle relief has been shady in three of the team’s first four games.
In the season opener, Parra was unable to keep the Brewers close, surrendering two runs on five hits and a walk in two innings. Dillard then came in and gave up three more runs in two innings as the game was pried open by the Cardinals’ hitters.
Fast forward to Sunday and the Brewers are in the same situation, more or less. Starter Randy Wolf exited after five innings with Milwaukee trailing 3-0. Marco Estrada failed to keep the Brewers within what I call “Salami Range” after yielding two more runs on a Carlos Beltran homer. Any minute hopes of a rally in the ninth were thwarted by a Shane Robinson (I repeat: Shane Robinson!) three-run blast off of Kameron Loe.
The bright side of all of this is that the Brewers’ middle relief has not cost the Brewers a game…yet. But, as the season progresses, the arms of Estrada, Parra, Dillard, and Loe will be called upon progressively more and their struggles could easily cost the Brew Crew a few wins.
On Easter, Arizona was able to mount a furious six-run comeback in part because of four hitless and scoreless relief innings from Wade Miley. The Diamondbacks put up seven runs over the final six innings to win, 7-6.
The denouement of this: on any given day at the ballpark, middle relief can be the unsung hero or the goat. Let’s hope the Brewers can fix the issue in their middle relief.