You can’t predict baseball.
If ever there were a week which embodied that notion, it began Thursday with the Brewers’ bullpen snafu and ended Tuesday with Yovani Gallardo’s pinch-hit walk-off double. Sure, the Brewers won 8-3 Wednesday night, but that game was mostly by the book.
Just as the Brewers appeared poised to get out of Atlanta with a split in the four-game series, things took a turn for the bizarre Thursday night.
A miscommunication between the dugout and the bullpen led Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke to call for a double switch despite having no relievers warming in the bullpen. Following a lengthy delay and just eight warm-up pitches, lefty Will Smith allowed both inherited runners to score and the Brewers went from a 4-2 lead to trailing 5-4 after a 47-minute seventh inning.
Roenicke took the blame for the miscommunication, as he should. Even with the absence of both pitching coach Rick Kranitz and bullpen coach Lee Tunnell, such an inability to get the proper reliever warming up at the proper time is mind-boggling.
Then came Friday night’s game, during which the Brewers and Marlins played home run derby in Miami, with the Crew coming out on top 9-5 while hitting three of the game’s seven home runs. They weren’t cheap ones, either.
The seven blasts traveled nearly 3,000 combined feet, with an average distance of 421 feet. Giancarlo Stanton hit the longest at 463 feet, while the shortest went 374 feet off the bat of Garrett Jones.
On Saturday, the Brewers ran themselves out of a potential win, with Carlos Gomez getting thrown out at third base before Ryan Braun touched home plate on a Mark Reynolds single. Afterward, Gomez defended his decision, and implied that Braun may not have run hard enough on the play.
Finally, Tuesday night’s finish topped it all.
With the Brewers out of hitters on the bench, Gallardo was called upon to pinch hit in the 10th inning. As he was intentionally walked for the pitcher, Reynolds laughed about the situation in the batter’s box. All the Brewers needed was their starting pitcher for Wednesday’s game to deliver a game-winning hit Tuesday.
And that’s exactly what Gallardo did. He drove a pinch-hit double off the wall in left, scoring Reynolds from first and sending the Brewers to a walk-off win.
As the Brewers continue to remind us, baseball is a weird game.
Wei-Chung Wang does not belong in a major league bullpen.
It’s that simple.
That doesn’t mean Wang will never belong. The Milwaukee Brewers reliever likely has a bright future as a left-handed reliever. But at this point in his career, he simply is not ready to face big-league hitters on a regular basis.
It’s not fair to anyone, least of all Wang, to pretend otherwise.
The only reason Wang remains on the Brewers’ 25-man roster is the stipulation in the Rule 5 draft that requires them to keep him in the majors or offer him back to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But Wang’s development is being arrested by a lack of opportunities to pitch, and the Brewers’ bullpen is weakened by having a pitcher on the roster that can’t be trusted in close games.
Having never pitched above Class A ball before this season, the 22-year-old Wang is best suited to pitch when needed in blowout games. But the Brewers don’t play many of them, win or lose.
Milwaukee’s three losses by six or more runs? Wang gave up at least four runs in each of them.
With the Brewers trailing 5-2 in the ninth against the Pirates on April 17, Wang gave up six runs in the inning to make it an 11-2 blowout. On April 30, Wang entered a 4-3 game and gave up four runs over three innings in a 9-3 loss to the Cardinals.
Finally, in Monday’s game, Wang recorded just two outs while surrendering five runs to make it a 9-3 loss to the Braves.
Wang was worth a shot. He has talent.
But the Brewers need a big-league-ready arm that can help them contend now. Not in three years.
Underrated. That’s the term some many have used to describe Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
As in, the most underrated catcher in baseball. Or, among the most underrated players in the major leagues.
The most recent use of this description came Wednesday afternoon via ESPN baseball writer Jerry Crasnick. A scout he talked to took it a step further, calling the fifth-year catcher the “most underrated player in the National League.”
Underrated or not, Lucroy is emerging as a star for the Brewers and may be the most important player on the roster at the moment.
The team has been battered by injuries of late, with third baseman Aramis Ramirez on the 15-day disabled list with a hamstring injury, right fielder Ryan Braun working his way back from an oblique injury and center fielder Carlos Gomez serving a three-game suspension while resting an ailing back.
That leaves Lucroy to carry a bigger load.
The good news for the Brewers is that Lucroy can do it. He’s off to a good start as the club’s biggest offensive threat over the last week.
Lucroy is 7-for-20 over his last six games with one home run, six RBIs and two walks, and he delivered a key two-run bases-loaded single in Tuesday’s victory over the Pirates. For the season, Lucroy is batting .311 with two home runs, 15 RBIs and 12 doubles.
His 1.2 WAR entering Wednesday’s game was second only to the Giants’ Buster Posey among NL catchers.
Much of that is due to Lucroy’s above-average defense behind the plate, but the fifth-year catcher continues to improve at the plate each season, while increasingly becoming an important presence in the Brewers’ clubhouse.
As the Brewers look to maintain their spot atop the NL Central standings with a thin lineup, Lucroy’s production will be key.
He’s not quite the K-Rod of old, but Francisco Rodriguez is as dominant as ever. And so is the Brewers’ bullpen.
Over 16 appearances, the 32-year-old closer has converted all 13 of his save opportunities, giving up just seven hits and four walks over 16 innings with 23 strikeouts. This week, he made four appearances, picking up four more saves while striking out five batters and allowing three to reach base.
Rodriguez has been the team’s best pitcher this month and the best closer in baseball. But he’s not the only Brewer dominating in relief.
Milwaukee’s bullpen is fourth in the league with a 2.45 ERA and 1.08 WHIP through 28 games. Opponents are hitting just .205 against Brewers relievers, with a .268 on-base percentage, numbers that are good for third and second in the league.
Joining Rodriguez in delivering spectacular results so far has been 25-year-old right-hander Tyler Thornburg and 24-year-old lefty Will Smith. The two have formed one of the most dominant young pitching duos in baseball, combining to allow just two runs on 13 hits over 27 innings.
Thornburg has struck out 17 batters with five walks, while Smith has 18 strikeouts against eight walks.
Putting together a good bullpen is far from an exact science. What may look like a good bullpen on Opening Day could fall apart by June 1. This year, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin appears to have gotten it right. And it’s paying huge dividends in Milwaukee.
Look at the lineup the Milwaukee Brewers put out Wednesday afternoon.
No Ryan Braun. No Aramis Ramirez. No one batting over .300.
Instead, they had catcher Jonathan Lucroy batting third and both Caleb Gindl and Logan Schafer starting in the outfield.
That is not a recipe for Major League success.
Many times last season, the Brewers filled out lineup cards much like this. Some even worse. And that was one of the primary reasons they won only 74 games and finished in fourth place, 23 games behind the National League Central champion St. Louis Cardinals.
With Braun on the shelf and Ramirez hitting .089 (5-for-56) over his last 17 games, the middle of the Brewers lineup is a mess. Lucroy’s no slouch, but he’s no Braun, either. And the Brewers weren’t exactly leading the league in offense before Braun’s injury.
No, the Brewers have been a middle-of-the-pack team at the plate this season, with pitching among the league’s best. But as the pitching has slipped a bit recently, the lack of offensive firepower has meant six losses in their last eight games.
Braun will return. And Ramirez will return to form at the plate. But the Brewers’ current rough stretch shows that their success — and any other teams’ — can be derailed quickly by the prolonged absence of a star player.