I know what you're thinking. The Cubs sweep a four-game road series for the first time since that season-changing series in Milwaukee at the end of last July and all I can do is whine about the bullpen.
Well tough. If Alfonso Soriano can take his rediscovered power into Philadelphia this week and lead the Cubs to a couple wins there instead of hacking away at the Walgreens Celebrity Batboy team, then I will certainly give Fonzie his due.
You certainly have to applaud any club who goes into another ballpark and wins four straight, no matter the record, but with the exception of today, it wasn't exactly a cakewalk against the MLB's worst.
The first problem was that no pitcher other than Rich Harden gave the Cubs more than five innings this weekend. That's right, Rich Harden. Maybe this is acceptable against -- the Phillies -- but not Washington. The result was that the bullpen had to work 15 innings in this series, not good for a team averaging 6.1 innings per start, up there with the best in the NL.
This wouldn't be a problem, however, if Lou Piniella knew how to manage his bullpen. Not that it's completely his fault -- I don't know if many managers could find a successful formula having inherited this bunch -- but it's even worse with a by-the-numbers skipper like Lou.
It's not that it's a bad bullpen, it's just a really inconsistent one, and if the Cubs plan to have more leads late in games this half of the season, that's going to have to improve. The inconsistency was apparent this weekend.
On Friday, Aaron Heilman, Sean Marshall, Carols Marmol and Kevin Gregg all pitched. They were excellent, going four strong innings and allowing no earned runs off only two hits and no walks with six strikeouts. On Saturday, the same four pitchers (plus Angel Guzman) went four innings again, but this time walked five, hit a batter and didn't strike a single player out.
When you look at that, you can only draw one of two conclusions: a) that's really inconsistent, what a mess or b) Piniella is overworking his pitchers. It was some luck that the Cubs battered the Nationals today so that Jeff Samardzija and rookie Jeff Stevens could see all the action. It would have been mighty interesting to see what Lou would've done if they'd only had a small lead.
Piniella appears as clueless as he did last year when the pen had some rough stretches. If a starter doesn't go six innings, he simply doesn't know who to pitch when. If he can't go with Guzman or Heilman in the 7th, Marmol in the 8th and Gregg in the 9th, he's lost. Let's break down the problems:
- No second lefty. Lou's hands are tied here. Sean Marshall is a starter in the bullpen, so he should be used in long relief or to pitch an inning when a lot of lefties are scheduled. Instead, Lou tries to fill Marshall into the left-handed one-out specialist role formerly vacated by Neal Cotts. The prayer is that former Toronto Bluejays closer B.J Ryan, whom the Cubs signed right after the break, can become that guy in a few weeks. If Marshall comes in for one out and gets pulled as soon as too many righties are coming to the plate, he become unavailable to help in extra innings or when more lefties come up in the lineup again.
- Wild Carlos. You might not be able to count on his release point or his fastball, but you can rely on Marmol to walk one player per inning. Lou seems to forget this. There is no reason Marmol should ever come into the middle of an inning if there are multiple men on base in a one-run game. Instead of trusting Marshall to get out of his one-out jam Saturday, Lou brings out Marmol for a third day of work and he hits the first batter. Playing in Nationals Park is the only reason that game didn't get tied. Marmol might be hard to place in a game with a close lead and a pitcher who finishes early, but for a numbers manager, 43 walks in 44 innings should jump out as a horrible risk with two men on. Marmol should only start innings and come in against lefties with one or no men on.
- Aaron "two-face" Heilman. Heilman gives up at least one earned run per every three appearances. He walks a batter in two of every three appearances and most of his earned runs come in innings he walks people. Lou has done a good job making sure Aaron starts off innings, but without many other quick-out pitchers in his bullpen, Lou has to leave Heilman in when he's walking batters. He's too similar to Marmol in terms of usage, the only difference being he gives up too many hits to ever be considered a problem fixer in the middle of innings. One option is to pitch him against lefties instead of Marshall every time; he surprisingly is much better vs. lefties with an opponents average of .246.
- No trust in the rookies. Piniella hates putting the minor leaguers into games unless he's tired his regulars or the score is lopsided. If they don't get put in pressure situations, Lou, how will they learn? This is especially bad news for someone like Samardzija, who had great success as a 7th inning hold man for the Cubs last season. Jeff's early struggles led to Piniella keeping him out of big games and unfairly so, at least at this point. Samardzija's been up with the Cubs since 6/30 and has appeared in only four games, pitching one inning only once. His stat line in that time is 9 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 6 K. I think he's earned some regular playing time. At the least, he's excellent against righties (ERA under 2.50) and could be used as a specialist instead of Marmol. Rookies like Jeff Stevens and David Patton (on the DL) should be treated more cautiously, but you have to see what you're working with or you're going to get more inconsistency from the regulars.