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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

This Year’s Home Brew Is Leaving a Bad Taste

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The Brewers’ inconsistency has their fans groaning. They swept three games in Pittsburgh by a combined score of 36-1, then lost three straight at home to the Cubs by a combined 25-4. They blasted the Pirates again, 17-3, but lost the next two games when Trevor Hoffman imploded. They were shut out in three of their four games at San Diego, then scored 51 runs in going 5-1 at Los Angeles and Arizona. And then, back home, they gave up 51 runs in losing six straight to Atlanta and Philadelphia.

That left the Brewers in fifth place and with a 4-14 record at Miller Park. The Observers, like everyone else, are baffled.

Artie: I'm not panicking yet, but I sure am trying to figure out what's going on. Are these guys really better than they showed against the Braves and Phillies?

Frank: Sunday night was the closest of the six games and filled with "woulda, coulda, shoulda" moments. Corey Hart woulda hit a grand slam in the first inning if his drive had gone anywhere except dead center field.

Artie: But it did go there. When Hart did homer in the sixth, nobody was on base—the way it seems to be when any Brewer homers, at least at Miller Park, ain’a?

Frank: It was obvious the starting rotation had to be better than in ’09, but we bravely said it didn't have to be hugely better because of the offense. So far the starters are better statistically, but the hitting is too spotty.

Artie: Just how much better is the rotation really?

Frank: Through 37 games, the starters' ERA was 4.81—half a run better than last year's 5.37. And not counting Jeff Suppan's 8.64 in his two starts and Doug Davis' 7.56 in seven, the other starters—Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, Dave Bush and Chris Narveson—had a combined 4.08.

Artie: But that 4.08 usually applies to only the first six innings. During the homestand, most of the games were close through five or six and then the bullpen lit the dynamite. Gallardo pitched OK against Atlanta but only lasted six because he threw 108 pitches. It seemed like every batter went to 2-2 or 3-2.

Frank: Ah, one of my favorite themes. Big-league umpires call a strike zone that's too small. If they'd call something, anything, above the belt buckle, there'd be more swings, more balls in play, fewer deep counts and longer outings for starters.

Artie: Narveson threw 130 pitches Saturday and still couldn't go six. Are the Crew's starters all "nibblers," which makes them throw more pitches and tire out, or are they just not very good and easy to figure out by the third time through the order?

Frank: Gallardo is their only real strikeout guy. But even he nibbles too much—again, because the umps make ’em all do it.

Artie: And if the starters can't get past the sixth, the relievers get overworked. It happened last year.

Frank: I think the "tired bullpen" mantra is overworked itself, at least this early in the season. Besides, a six-inning start is what most managers plan for. They tend to overuse their bullpens under any circumstances.

Artie: It's what the stat known as "quality start" is based on—six innings or more, three earned runs or fewer.

Frank: Ken Macha is no exception. Sure, he'd love for his starter to go seven or eight, but if he goes six with the lead, the "program" can go forward. The skipper uses his seventh-inning guy, his eighth-inning guy—and often his "situational" left-hander—and then his closer. If one of them flops he says, "Well, we had our bullpen all set up."

Artie: In other words, "Don't blame me."

Frank: But if you routinely use four pitchers to get the last nine outs, or three to get the last five outs, doesn't that help fry the bullpen, too?

Artie: I keep asking what else is different with the pitching besides the additions of Wolf and Davis. And it's the new coach, Rick Peterson, the guru whose approach is bio-scientific or whatever. I wonder if he's got these guys' heads somewhere they shouldn't be.

Frank: It's not a coach's fault if a pitcher can't make a throw to first or pick up a bunt, as Manny Parra couldn't Friday night. But going into this week the Brewers' overall ERA was 5.20, ranking 14th out of 16 National League teams.

Artie: Some of that is Hoffman's amazing 11.08 through his first 13 games and LaTroy Hawkins' 9.26 as the setup man before his shoulder went bad. And of course Davis' 7-plus in the rotation.

Frank: Davis just went on the disabled list with a virus in the lining of his heart. We're glad it's easily treatable and not related to his thyroid cancer in ’08, but having him out for a while is good for the team.

Artie: By the time he returns a familiar face might be in his starting spot. Chris Capuano, coming off his second "Tommy John" elbow surgery, had an ERA of 0.79 in his first four minor-league starts. Suppan's butt is parked in the bullpen, and I say, "Hey, Soup, save a seat for Doug."

Frank: On offense, the Brewers went into this week second in the N.L. in batting (.271), runs (199) and homers (46). But a lot of the runs came in a few blowouts against the Pirates and D-Backs.

Artie: Prince Fielder seems to be coming out of his usual slow start, with homers Friday and Saturday. But gosh darn, they were solo shots. He seems to love to hit ’em when he has a clear path around the bases.

Frank: Rickie Weeks isn't burning things up the way he did last year before he hurt his wrist. And Alcides Escobar has been in a slump.

Artie: I was glad they moved Escobar from the No. 8 slot to No. 2 on Sunday night. Hitting ahead of the pitcher he wasn't seeing anything good to hit. But hitting ahead of Ryan Braun he sure will.

Frank: Hart continues to be inconsistent. But at the No. 5 spot behind Fielder, Casey McGehee is doing fine.

Artie: The best thing is that we only reach the one-quarter mark of the season this week, so there's still plenty of time. But things have to change!

Frank: If the swoon lasts through this week's road trip, Macha might well be gone. They have two coaches ready to take over, Dale Sveum and Willie Randolph.

Artie: The knock on Macha is that he's too passive, too quiet. But that describes Sveum and Randolph, too.

Frank: If they wanted a kick-butt, Lou Piniella type, they'd have to look outside. But as a tension reliever, someone the players might relate to better, either Sveum or Randolph would fit.

Artie: Mark Attanasio and Doug Melvin aren't afraid to make a move. They dumped Ned Yost for Sveum with 12 games left in ’08 and squeaked into the playoffs. And look at Colorado last year; Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle in late May and the team took off, all the way to the postseason.

Frank: And Tracy is no high-energy guy.

Artie: They have a day off Monday. If they're still struggling then, a Macha firing wouldn't surprise me.

Another Turn at Bat

Frank: Hey, Yost is back in the game as the manager in Kansas City.

Artie: Why would he want to get involved in that hapless situation?

Frank: It could hardly be worse than what he found here in ’03, right after a 106-loss season. And it's a fact that he helped build a contending team.

Artie: I know one thing—from now on the K.C. pitchers will have fabulous "stuff," even when they get blasted. That's Ned's credo: "I thought he pitched really well except for those three balls that sailed over the fence." Hey, I wonder if Ned has the K.C. general manager talking to Melvin about getting Suppan over there.

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