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Will Smith has been dominant in a relief role so far in 2014. (PHOTO: David Bernacchi)

Bullpen mentality brings early success

It's not quite déjà vu all over again, but it's close.

A little over a year ago, the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen was rolling along – and the team was, too. A nine-game winning streak in April and a dominant relief corps had people feeling good, in and out of the clubhouse.

Of course, things didn't quite continue along that path. May began with the Brewers a half game behind Pittsburgh and the team had a 4-2 lead in Pittsburgh after seven strong innings from Hiram Burgos, but former closer John Axford gave up four runs in the eighth inning, leading to a loss.

That began a 6-22 month, which in turn effectively torpedoed the other five months of play in which the Brewers went 68-66.

What 2013 proved was that it's impossible to predict that one successful month begets another, and then another, but the start to 2014 is encouraging. The bullpen's effectiveness has been nearly the same through the first 33 games (all stats through Monday's 8-3 victory over Arizona) as it was over the first 25 of last year, even as it's had to change its shape – beginning with a new closer running out of the bullpen on Opening Day.

"This is a good unit," closer Francisco Rodriguez said." If somebody goes down, somebody steps right into it, which is good to have. It makes it a lot easier; obviously for the manager also."

There are a couple of holdovers from that good start to 2013, including Jim Henderson – who was closing at the time.

"I think about it," he said of the similarities between the two starts, and why this year is different. "Sometimes when you have a lot of personalities, they won't mesh – not saying we didn't mesh before – but I think we have one personality out there as a bullpen. We're all getting along well."

Then he added something interesting.

"We're all kind of young, too," said Henderson, who was just placed on the disabled list. "We're all kind of new to this, new to the big leagues and then throw Frankie in what he's been doing on the back end. Everything's been going well."

Heading into this year, the relief experience of the Brewers' current bullpen (outside of Rodriguez) broke down this way:

  • Brandon Kintzler – 101 games, 115 2/3 innings
  • Henderson – 97 games, 90 2/3
  • Zach Duke – 45 games, 67 2/3
  • Will Smith – 18 games, 29 1/3
  • Tyler Thornburg – 16 games, 31 2/3
  • Wei-Chung Wang – 0 games

Even the two relievers called up to help out due to injury and/or fatigue – Rob Wooten (27 games, 27 2/3 innings) and Alfredo Figaro (37 games, 63 2/3) – haven't had much experience in the bullpen prior to 2014.

The mentality the group has can, perhaps, be summed up by Thornburg and Smith.

Both are starting pitching prospects, but haven't been given the keys to that car just yet. So, they've embraced the role they've been handed and have been fearless in doing so.

"They've thrown the ball extremely well," Rodriguez said. "One thing that surprises me more is that they want the ball every day. They attack the zone, and when they got the chance they put them away. Usually you don't see that in young guys. One thing that I noticed is that they don't give too much credit to the hitters. They just go right at them and put them away, which is good."

Their performance has had a cumulative effect, too.

First, it's been on each other.

"It becomes a little bit of competition, a little bit of picking each other up," Henderson said. "We look at it and it's just been guy's been thrown into setup roles that have never done it before and now we're just kind of rotating. We're doing well and we're winning and now we're just confident in whoever goes out there. Now we're just like, OK, we don't have to be winning to put this person in – we can put in whoever. That's the kind of feeling that's been going up there. It's been great to have confidence in everybody."

It's also carried over to other facets of the team. The starters feel a lead can be protected, and by doing that pressure has been taken off an offense that already seen its some of its best players miss time due to injury.

"If you don't have a good bullpen where you're late in the game, you're really trying to pressure that offense to get as far of a lead as you can," Roenicke said. "We feel so good about our bullpen, obviously we're going to want to score runs, but when we have any lead going in to really, seven, eight, nine, we feel pretty good with our bullpen. Hopefully that continues and the offense has that feeling that we just need to get a lead. If the starters can go their seven innings we'll be able to protect them."

The concern now, as it always will be, is keeping the group rolling throughout the entirety of the season.

"We're very fortunate right now," Roenicke admitted. "That's why I'm concerned that I make sure that I don't overuse the guys and try to keep them strong, and if I can keep them strong and fresh I think they're all capable of having a great year."


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