Just when they think they need help in the bullpen, the starters go kablooey. And then when those guys begin throwing strikes and dominating hitters and going deep in games, their relievers melt down.
The two groups of pitchers have worked in tandem at times this season, but the Braves haven’t had the consistency that they expected from either group.
Case in point: The Braves began the season with Kris Medlen in the bullpen because they thought the former starter could be best utilized as a reliever. They figured that with a group of young starters, Medlen would help eat some middle innings and save the late-inning guys.
But that was before former All-Star Jair Jurrjens lost his command and was sent to the minors. And that was before young lefty Mike Minor began a six-week sojourn to struggleville that might have ended with his strong performance against the Yankees this week.
So the Braves sent Medlen to the minors to “stretch out” his arm with the intention of bringing him back to the majors as a starter and having him take the place of either Minor or Randall Delgado, who has also had his troubles at times.
But then something happened.
The starters turned it around earlier this month and the bullpen situation became murky when Livan Hernandez imploded in consecutive appearances and once-reliable lefty Jonny Venters couldn’t get anybody out in Tuesday’s appearance against the Yankees.
The Braves were already short-handed from both the right and left side heading into that game because Eric O’Flaherty remains out with a sore elbow and the resurgent Chad Durbin was unavailable because he needed a day off.
As a result, the Braves’ bullpen gave up five of the Yankees’ six runs in a 6-4 loss.
The relievers had a 6.64 ERA in the six games leading into Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Yankees. They had helped blow four-run leads in the past four games before throwing three scoreless innings on Wednesday.
Medlen, meanwhile, appears to be ready to return to the majors, this time in an undefined role. He has made three starts at Triple-A Gwinnett and threw 97 pitches on Tuesday. And although the results haven’t been great – he’s 0-2 with a 4.73 ERA – the Braves have a decision to make.
Do they bring Medlen back and have him replace somebody in the rotation? Or do they return him to the bullpen with the knowledge that he could become a temporary or permanent starter, if needed?
“We’re kicking around the role,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We will have some conversations and see what’s the best situation we can put him in and help us at the same time. In the next two days we’ll talk about how he would fit in the grand scheme of things with our team and what makes our team the strongest.”
It doesn’t make sense to bring Medlen back as a starter now that Minor and Delgado appear to be regaining the form and promise they’ve flashed at times this season.
And having Medlen in the pen would have helped solve some of the dilemmas the Braves have faced the past few games.
Relievers pitched 4 2/3 innings on Sunday and four innings on Monday. Combined with O’Flaherty’s injury and Dubin’s unavailability, the Yankees had the Braves’ bullpen by the horns on Tuesday.
That’s one of the reasons recently recalled reliever Cory Gearrin pitched to Nick Swisher, who hit the game-winning home run.
“The only thing I would have done different, and this is hindsight is 20/20 and the whole thing, is to have brought in (Christhian) Martinez instead of Gearrin,” Gonzalez said. “We had it set up the way we wanted it. We really did. If you look at the left-handers and the switch-hitters hitting right-handed, we had a perfect setup. It didn’t happen.”
In addition to giving up that home run, Gearrin had pitched in two consecutive games, and the Braves needed another fresh arm. So the Braves demoted Gearrin, just two days after his promotion, and brought up Anthony Varvaro, another right-hander, on Wednesday.
Gonzalez also didn’t want to risk closer Craig Kimbrel on a five-out save situation.
The Braves made the right move by preparing him to become a starter. But the situation has changed and they need to be fluid enough to adapt.