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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Now Pitching

The Fairly Detached Observers

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I`m Art Kumbalek and here's thestory. The Shepherd wants a weekly sports column, since sports apparently seems to be a popular topic of conversation these days amongst a certain clique. And somehow I got tabbed to helm the launching of this craft; qualifications being I don't need to spell-check "Lambeau," and that I was at good ol' County Stadium the night of Aug. 11, 1961, when Warren Spahn beat the Cubs 2-1 for his 300th win, I kid you not.

So, whenever I've got a project on my platter that comes with a deadline not of my choosing, I always begin at the tavern for a nice ice-cold bottled beer. And so I did, Thursday evening, May 22. On the TV, our Milwaukee Brewers were engaged with the Washington Nationals, a game they would lose 5-1 one night after leaving 14 Brewers base runners with a case of home plate-interruptus in a loss to the perennially piss-poor Pirates, what the fock.

But it was serendipity at the tavern that evening. I met a new friend, Frank Clines, a fine upstanding Irish Catholic guy out of New York who had labored 20 years in the sports department at the
Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and a guy who covered the Brewers part-time for most of those years. Here's what I remember from that night, seated at the bar, right after Tony Gwynn struck out to end a scoreless top of the 7th:

Artie: Oh, for cripes sakes. Another goose egg. Hey Frank, tell me, as a genuine veteran scribe, where the heck are the steroids when you need them, ain'a?

Frank: Hold on, buddy. These days I'm more like a fairly detached observer. My feeling is that they're going to score runs, but it always comes down to their pitching.

Artie: True. So will the runs ever be enough?

Frank: Braun seems to be having a good follow-up season. Prince is sort of floating, I guess you could say—some good games, some not so good.

Artie: That vegetarian diet he's on, I don't know. He needs a nice Whopper. A Whopper with cheese. Make that two. He's a Prince hitting like a pauper.

Frank: Add some protein, huh?

Artie: As long as it's not a banned substance. As for that pitching...

Frank: Yes, that Brewer pitching. When you see Sheets go the way he did the other night in Pittsburgh, it just gnaws at you that it never seems to happen over the entire season. He made every start for three straight seasons, 2002-'04, but not since then. And he's been here every year since Miller Park opened, so this is his eighth year.

Artie: It's such a shame. You look at the number of wins for a guy who's pitched eight seasons, and there's nothing there.

Frank: Then that brings you to Suppan, who's a horse, but that's by current standards, which means he's going to consistently give you six innings instead of five and a third. And this business about "quality starts"—at least six innings and three or fewer earned runs. Well, you work that out and an ERA of 4.50 is "quality." Last I checked there were still some people who had ERAs under 3, or even under 2, but the Brewers don't have any of them, except for Sheets.

Artie: And that bullpen.

Frank: Now, I'm not glad that Riske and Gagne are hurt, but I think this could be a good thing because...

Artie: Because we just flushed 10 million bucks down the Gagne toilet that we could have used...

Frank: No, no, here's what I'm saying. Ned's been innovative in hitting his pitchers eighth ahead of Jason Kendall; I'm not sure how successful it is, but it's innovative. And now with the injuries, he could not only say there's going to be "closer by committee," but actually have closer by committee, by having any one of these guys ready to close the game, based on circumstances, the opponent, the lefty-righty setup. You've got a million statistics on how a guy does against this batter, that batter. Why not have every guy ready to pitch in any stinkin' inning?

Artie: So maybe it's not ideal to have these super-defined roles.

Frank: You tell a guy, "You're my seventh-inning guy" or "my eighth-inning guy" and specify that so strongly, then you're also kind of telling him, "You're not a guy I want to have the ball in the ninth inning." And you would hope that every one of them would be saying, “Hey, give me the ball at the end.”

Artie: That's where the money is if you're successful.

Frank: It's not just Ned who does it. Joe Torre fried a lot of Yankee pitchers because he had to use a guy in the seventh and a different guy in the eighth to get to Mariano. He'd wind up using five and six pitchers a game. Ned is always talking about bullpen guys knowing their roles. Well, your role is to pitch.

Artie: Roles. Hey, are these guys actors or ballplayers? Are they going to the ballpark to play a game or put on a production of Hamlet, for crying out loud.

Frank: But in order not to fry your bullpen, no matter how you use them, you have to have a starter besides Sheets who can get you more than six innings.

Artie: I got a theory, Frank; since MLB lowered the height of the pitching mound back in '69, pitchers are disadvantaged and seem to come down with arm heebie-jeebies every other day. So maybe raise the mound another inch?

Frank: Aw, let's raise it more than that.

Artie: The games would go faster.

Frank: And that, my friend, is another story. I'm all revved up for that one, but let's save that for another discussion at another emporium.

Artie: Can do, Frank. How 'bout next week?

Frank: I'll be there, Artie, providing you buy.

Artie: My pleasure.