MILWAUKEE — Heading into the season, the Milwaukee Brewers expected to have Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler anchoring their bullpen in the back end.
While Henderson has been sidelined by a shoulder injury for more than a month, Kintzler hasn’t been the same steady reliever he was last season. Kintzler has struggled to get on track since returning from a strained rotator cuff but feels he isn’t far off from returning to form.
"I can easily turn it around," Kintzler said. "I feel like I’m one pitch away or one break . . . I’ve had so many bad breaks it’s unbelievable. It’s been happening for a month. In Atlanta, there was the infield double; the shift in Miami or the infield hit."
Entering the season as Milwaukee’s setup man, Kintzler didn’t allow a run in his first five outings despite pitching with discomfort in his right shoulder. The Brewers and Kintzler decided to be proactive about the injury, which meant placing the right-hander on the disabled list on April 12.
He returned just over two weeks later but has had a 4.41 ERA since April 27. Kintzler certainly has run into his fair share of bad luck — Gerald Laird hitting a run-scoring double that didn’t leave the infield on May 22 and a variety of other hits that have found holes on his sinking fastball — but he hasn’t helped his cause by struggling to retire the first batter of innings.
Kintzler, who has a 3.38 ERA on the season, has retired 14 of the 23 (60.9 percent) of the first batters he’s faced — including the last three. Last season, Kintzler sat down 73.2 percent of the first batters faced. The right-hander only allowed five of 21 inherited runners to score in 2013 but let three of five inherited runners score this May alone.
"We need this guy, we need him to pitch late in the games and we need him to be able to get right-handers out and the only way to do that is to keep pitching him in games when we need him," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He’s having trouble with that first batter again, but still, I’m very confident, that this guy is going to find it and he’s really going to help us this year."
Kintzler’s last three outings have been encouraging, as he pitched a clean inning against Minnesota on June 3 and recorded just his eighth strikeout of the year in his last outing Saturday in Pittsburgh. Never a big strikeout pitcher, Kintzler still struck out 58 batters in 77 innings last year.
"I don’t have the sink I would like to have," Kintzler said. "It’s mechanical. I’ve done some timing stuff and drills with (pitching coach Rick) Kranitz trying to slow things down instead of forcing the issue. I’m trying to force the sink instead of letting it happen.
"You see the alignment, you repeat the delivery and hopefully you can take it into the game. It’s always different when the hitters gets into the box. You have to be mentally confident in the process. This game is a process and will definitely test you. I’m being tested. Last year was a breeze, this year is testing me."
Kintzler admitted there’s a temptation to try to overanalyze things during a stretch when things aren’t going well.
"All of a sudden one thing goes wrong and you start to feel like you have to fix a million things instead of simplifying it all," Kintzler said. "It’s a little trap you get into."
The Brewers have been able to post the seventh-lowest bullpen ERA in the National League despite having their projected closer and setup man battling injuries and inconsistencies, while expected bullpen cog Tom Gorzelanny has yet to return from shoulder surgery.
Will Smith has stepped into the setup up role, while Francisco Rodriguez has performed admirably as closer.
"Again, things will happen from time to time, and I expect that," Roenicke said. "I don’t expect them to be perfect all the time. But as a whole, I like what we have out there. I think they all know how to pitch, and when they’re all confident and doing well, they’re going to be really good."
There’s nothing more fragile in baseball than bullpens, and the Brewers know they are going to need Kintzler to play a big role moving forward.
"Hopefully he gets through clean innings and he gets the confidence back," Roenicke said. "Take care of the mechanics and then it’ll be fine."
The confidence Roenicke has displayed in him hasn’t gone unnoticed by Kintzler.
"That means a lot," Kintzler said. "If everyone was doubting you and you’re doubting yourself, you’re lost and you might as well not be here.
"I feel terrible that I’ve left the team down. Hopefully I can and will get it going so I can help make it easier on some of the other guys who always have to come in. I want to do well for Ron, too, for having confidence in me. I think he saw what I did last year . . . the thing is I can’t always go off last year. I had a good year last year but this is a new year. The league makes adjustments."