Monday, June 13, 2005

Where is Rick Luecken when we need him?

For those who weren't watching the Braves during their seven years of famine, Luecken was a disaster of a middle reliever for the Braves during the 1990 season. My brother and I would joke about seeing him on the Arsenio Hall Show some day, after his third straight 60-save, Cy Young award-winning season and the thought of this guy emerging to a studio full of woofing fans before doing a seven-step hug with Arsenio was the height of comedy. I don't know what dates me more: the reference to the Braves as one of the worst teams in baseball or the Arsenio Hall Show fantasy. I digress.

The point is that Luecken would fit right in with the Braves' current bullpen. They went 2-4 on their homestand, including losing two of three to an Oakland team that had lost eleven in a row on the road coming in. In all four losses, the Braves' bullpen was a chief culprit:

Monday night - Cox is forced to leave Smoltz in in the 8th inning when it's clear that he's out of gas and as a result, a 2-1 lead becomes a 4-2 loss.

Wednesday night - Tim Hudson exits a 4-4 game and the bullpen proceeds to turn that situation into an 8-4 loss.

Friday night - Kyle Davies exits a 4-4 game and Roman Colon's fine pitching turns that into a 6-4 loss.

Sunday afternoon - Horacio Ramirez exits a 4-4 game and the bullpen completely implodes, led by the rapidly decomposing Adam Bernero. Final score: 11-5.

Part of the problem is the offense, which can't hit opposing bullpens. (Notice how the Braves' score didn't increase in the late innings of each loss? Think the pressure of an extended dry spell is getting to the hitters in the late innings of close games?) However, the Braves could stomach a below-average offense because of their "strong to...quite strong" starting pitching, but only if they had a bullpen that could get anyone out. To their credit, the organization isn't standing pat, as they made a series of moves, including the much anticipated demotion of Colon. They also demoted Brayan Pena, who demonstrated no plate discipline or power during his brief stint in Atlanta (23 at-bats, three singles, one walk, five strikeouts, no extra-base hits). Blaine Boyer didn't look like much of a solution yesterday, as he allowed one run and would have allowed more if not for great plays in the field by Andruw and Giles. (That reminds me: the defense was outstanding yesterday. Giles, Furcal, Langerhans, and Andruw all made great plays to support the Braves' sub-standard pitching. Andruw generally had a terrific weekend, but the bullpen has ensured that he'll get little credit.) Jorge Vasquez had great stats for Mississippi, but we'll see how he does when he's pitching against the Rangers instead of the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx.

Aside from the Braves' poor pitching and the fact that they essentially had three pitchers in the batting line-up (Ramirez, Pena, and Brian Jordan), yesterday wasn't a great day at the park for other reasons. I got a sunburn in a game that featured a rain delay, which was really the worst of all possible worlds. When we moved under an overhang and then tried out new seats down the rightfield line in a virtually empty section, we were ejected by an usher. Apparently, our "these seats are worse than the ones for which we actually have tickets and this section is almost completely empty" reasoning doesn't work with people who have no ability for abstract thought. The upshot was that my psychologist wife got to explain that whole brain principle as the bullpen collapsed, so the game wasn't a total loss.

A couple other thoughts:

1. Horacio did not look good yesterday. Most annoyingly, he walked the lead-off hitter in each of the first three innings. For an alleged contact pitcher who doesn't strike many batters out, this was a disturbing sign. I predicted that he would have problems in the 5th, based on the fact that he'd struggled through four and his luck was likely to run out against the top of the A's order, not that one had to be a rocket scientist to see trouble coming.

2. The home runs that Adam Bernero surrendered yesterday were not cheap. Chavez's blast was to the spacious right-center alley and Kotsay's shot was a line drive scorched right down the line. I predicted his bad inning as well, but still had to go fishing for compliments from the wife.

3. The combination of Barry Zito pitching and Jason Kendall catching deterred Furcal from trying to steal second. Zito, by the way, was unimpressive. His velocity isn't especially good, which forces him to constantly nibble. He had to throw 80 pitches through the first three innings and barely averted a disaster when Andruw just missed a three-run homer in the first.

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