MILWAUKEE — In what is an unpredictable game, the most incalculable aspect of baseball might just be the bullpen. A team needs a good one in order to contend for the postseason, but finding the right mix can prove challenging.
The Milwaukee Brewers don’t need to be told that. They watched in 2012 as their bullpen had the highest ERA in baseball and was one of the major factors the team didn’t make the postseason.
A year after turning the league’s worst relief corps into the fifth-best in the majors, the Brewers’ current group of relievers is off to a fantastic start to 2014 and is a big reason why the team is 10-2 and winners of nine straight games.
Entering Monday’s game against St. Louis, Milwaukee’s bullpen leads baseball with a 0.83 ERA over 32 2/3 innings. Brewers relievers have allowed just three earned runs in 12 games, more than half as many as any other team.
"If we have the lead going into the late part of the game, it’s going to be very tough for the other team to score a run off those guys," Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo said. "They have showed it so far. We have a lot of guys who have good stuff out there. Being a starter, I am very confident knowing that."
Francisco Rodriguez, Brandon Kintzler, Will Smith and Jim Henderson have pitched a combined 21 2/3 scoreless innings, while Tyler Thornburg has allowed just a solo home run in 7 2/3 innings. Two of the three earned runs allowed by the bullpen have come off left-handed specialist Zach Duke.
The tone has been set by Rodriguez, as the team’s current closer has allowed just two baserunners and struck out 11 to save four games in six appearances. Knowing the closer is pitching well allows Roenicke to only have to worry about the sixth, seventh and eighth innings for now.
Kintzler had to be placed on the 15-day disabled list Saturday with a minor strain of the rotator cuff, but the Brewers have coverage in the seventh and eighth innings. Smith and Thornburg have emerged as late-inning options, and Henderson has gotten back on track.
"Those guys are big," Roenicke said. "If they aren’t doing their job, then when we are winning we are putting the same guys in over and over. You can’t continue to do that.
"With Tyler throwing the ball the way he is, if he’s pitching the sixth, seventh, eighth inning, I have no problems with it. Duke, Smith, Kintzler, they are all throwing the ball well that I don’t mind putting them in situations."
Despite losing leaders like John Axford and Michael Gonzalez, this year’s group of relievers has quickly become a close-knit group. The mix of youth and experience seems to have jelled well together early on.
"We have a lot of fun down there," Smith said. "But when the phone rings, it’s time to go to work. It’s business time. We have our own little games that we play; it’s a lot of fun."
On the mound, guys have fed off of each other. Much like Milwaukee’s starting rotation, success has had a domino effect.
"When a couple of guys are going well in the bullpen, all of a sudden things get rolling," Thornburg said. "Everybody has that confidence like, ‘Hey, this guy is going to get it done. That guy is going to get it done.’ It tends to roll like that."
Because the Brewers have been ahead in almost all of their last nine games, the core five relievers have been used frequently. Milwaukee’s starting staff has not produced any real short starts, however, meaning Rule 5 pick and long reliever Wei-Chung Wang has yet to pitch this season.
Preventing the bullpen from being overworked early is important but also tricky for a manager. It’s a good sign the Brewers have had to use their main bullpen arms frequently because it simply means they’ve been ahead in many games.
While Milwaukee’s bullpen has only had to cover the 21st most innings in baseball, the starting staff is making it a goal to work deeper into games to cut the workload further.
"They are rolling right now," Brewers right-hander Kyle Lohse said. "For the most part, we’re getting deep enough in games for them to (not) have to rack up too many innings, but that’s one thing you have to be careful of. These guys keep having to go in there.
"We have to pick up the slack a little bit and go deeper and pick them up. They have been doing a great job. We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing if they weren’t doing their job, too."
The Brewers will be faced with a couple of decisions in their bullpen down the road. First, a spot will have to be cleared for left-hander Tom Gorzelanny when he returns from the disabled list. It’s unclear as to when exactly Gorzelanny will be ready to pitch after off-season shoulder surgery.
Roenicke has said he’d prefer Henderson back in the closer’s role, but it would be hard to pull Rodriguez at this moment with the way he’s throwing the ball.
"Don’t put me there," Roenicke said on moving Henderson back to closer. "I don’t want to start thinking about that yet. Everybody understands it. That’s kind of what happened with Henderson and (John Axford) in 2013. Henderson went in his spot and was lights out, then all of a sudden Ax started throwing the ball really well, and then we were in this same position."