Kovacevic: Don’t like the losing bullpen formula? Change it ☕


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Steven Brault pitches Sunday in Milwaukee. - AP

MILWAUKEE -- "We’ve had number of games where we were trailing, 4-2, our starter gets knocked out in the fifth inning, we go to our middle relievers and, next thing you know, it's 9-2 and the ballgame is over.”

That was Neal Huntington. And believe it or not, that was Sunday morning before the Pirates had built up precisely that lead, only to blow it precisely that way, the lone difference being that this starter, Steven Brault, was knocked out in the seventh inning, and this final was 5-2 in the Brewers' favor.

Hey, even Nostradamus' quatrains were often off by a letter or two.

Huntington's remark, part of his session here with reporters in the Miller Park press box, was aimed at supporting his stance that his team's short-term future isn't anywhere near as bleak as its run differential -- now minus-78 -- would suggest. He cited not only the team's actual record -- now 30-34 -- but also the 23 different players who've spent time on Major League Baseball's injured list, and argued that a grand total of six losses can account for that run differential.

"On the one hand, those losses are brutal and they’re painful," Huntington continued. "On the other hand, our run differential is pretty misrepresentative of how we’ve been in some cases. As we get guys healthy and as we get better, there are some things we can do on the positive side going forward.”

I'm not wild about making sweeping exceptions within mathematical equations, but OK, I'll buy that.

So where's this positive side?

The obvious answer, as Huntington acknowledged, is getting Trevor Williams, Jameson Taillon, Keone Kela and any other injured pitcher back to full functionality. We saw back in April how solid this staff could be. It wasn't a mirage.

But in the interim, here's another idea: Stop being stubborn about how that bullpen's used.

Or, to word it another way, there's no justification whatsoever for this team to go through an entire weekend sweep against an opponent that's atop their division and not once summon Felipe Vazquez or Kyle Crick from the bullpen.

Here's how this one went ...

Brault made a fourth consecutive respectable start, pitching 6 1/3 and exiting with a 2-1 lead when lifted. Through six, he baffled the Brewers with, of all things, a relentless flood of fastballs -- 75 of 83 on the day -- and all concerned conceded it wasn't any more complicated than that.

"Best game he's pitched this year," Clint Hurdle called the showing.

Brault seemed satisfied, too:

Good for him. He should be satisfied. He also should keep his spot in the rotation until more help returns.

So, why'd he get lifted following such efficiency?

"We were trying to get every out we can out of him," Hurdle would say, noting that he let Brault hit for himself in the previous inning. "But he was a different pitcher in the seventh inning."

Hm. Well, Brault did give up a soft single and, after a scorched out, walked his next batter. What's more, he and Elias Diaz opted to move away from the fastball because the Brewers, as Brault and I discuss in the video up there, began flailing at everything he threw. So there definitely were warning signs.

"He got away from what had been working," Hurdle said. "That showed me right there it was time to head in a different direction."

OK, so then, why not go completely different?

Because Hurdle's definition of a different direction in this case was to rely on a wholly failed reliever in summoning Richard Rodriguez with two aboard and a one-run lead.

I mean, it didn't take Nostradamus to foresee what would follow:

That was Ben Gamel tying the game with the sliced single.

And by the time Mike Moustakas overcame a 3-for-21 personal history against Francisco Liriano with this missile in the next inning ...

... it was too late.

"It was supposed to go outside, and it stayed over the plate," Liriano told me. "Just a bad day."

Almost amusingly, Crick began to warm up in the ninth inning. Presumably in case he was needed to pitch on the charter flight to Atlanta later in the evening.

There's nothing different about this. It's dumb.

This management team -- and I usually exempt Hurdle from that category, but he's very much involved in this component -- takes pride in trying truly different things, but now, in this time of bona fide desperation with the pitching staff, it still can't find a way to deploy its two best relievers when they're most needed.

They both want to be in there. Trust me on that. I've asked, and I asked again here. They don't care which innings they pitch. They want to be part of Ws.

Resetting the scene, this team, which began the day six games behind these Brewers, took a tight lead into the seventh and replaced the starter with one of their -- no, one of anyone's -- worst relievers.

Why Rodriguez?

"Because he's the one guy who's done a pretty transient job with runners inherited," Hurdle replied to that question, clearly misusing "transient" though his intent was clear. "I needed to make decisions better for us to win that game, 2-1. I made decisions that didn't work out."

Well, high marks for accountability, but that's about it. Rodriguez hasn't been anything but terrible this season when inheriting runners: He's now entered with men on base eight times, he's given up at least a run five times, and he's allowed six of 12 runners to score, twice by home run.

Now, if we're talking 2018, yeah, Rodriguez allowed only three of 27 inherited runners to score.

But if anyone's still waiting for the 2018 version of this particular pitcher to reemerge, that's not exactly sizzling strategy, either.

Vazquez was joking over the weekend that, when he doesn't pitch, he eats too much. Maybe there's a revolutionary diet to accompany the seemingly revolutionary concept of using one of the planet's most feared pitchers once in a while.

I've got a separate file with a handful of thoughts on the game.

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