posted by Jon
Seattle's bullpen situation was already a little bit sticky coming into the regular season after George Sherrill, Seattle's second best reliever in 2007, was dealt to Baltimore over the offseason, leaving some big shoes to fill. During Spring Training the relief corps dealt with injury while trying to set the assignments as Arthur Rhodes and Mark Lowe, among others, were question marks after coming back from major injuries. Brandon Morrow also developed a sore arm, undoubtedly a result of pitching almost non-stop since the beginning of the 2007 season.
As it turned out, Seattle went with a bullpen that included six guys: J.J. Putz, Mark Lowe, Sean Green, Eric O'Flaherty, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Cha-Seung Baek. Brandon Morrow and Arthur Rhodes were both assigned to the minor leagues to get healthy and strong before being tested in major leagues.
Then the hearts of Mariner fans everywhere were crushed when J.J. Putz, arguably the best closer in all of baseball, blew a save and then was placed on the 15-day disabled list with rib inflammation. Uncertainty engulfed Seattle's late inning situation as manager John McLaren announced that Seattle would handle the ninth inning "closer by committee." Roy Corcoran was called up from AAA Tacoma as the team wrapped up their set against Texas before heading to Baltimore for a four game series.
While the Mariner bullpen didn't pitch very well in the first two games, Putz's presence wasn't truly missed until Sunday, the third game of the series. Felix Hernandez went out and pitched a gem (8 IP, 0 R, 6 K) before the bullpen was summoned to preserve the 2-0 lead in the 9th. Eric O'Flaherty was called upon with three of the first four Orioles due up left-handed hitters, despite struggling with his control in Saturday's ballgame. O'Flaherty left a fastball thigh-high and right down the middle that Nick Markakis knocked for a double to lead off the inning. O'Flaherty pitched well the the following hitters, getting ground ball outs against Kevin Millar and Aubrey Huff, though Markakis came around to score to make it a 2-1 ballgame.
Mark Lowe was brought into the ballgame after O'Flaherty surrendered a single to Luke Scott. Lowe wasn't able to put out the fire as Baltimore tied and won the game after he gave up a couple singles and a wild pitch.
I was out of town for this entire series, but I guess there was a little debate among fans and around the blogosphere about the decision to pull out Felix Hernandez after 8 innings. If you've been following the Mariners at all over the past couple of seasons then you know King Felix never wants to come out of the game. Apparently he didn't feel comfortable pitching the complete game after being bumped up a day after Erik Bedard's start was pushed back. "You guys know me, I don't want to come out of the game,'' he told reporters after the ballgame. "But when I feel tired, I don't want to make any mistakes. Because I felt a little bit tired. I threw a bullpen the other day. I didn't expect that, to throw eight innings after just one day's rest.''
Some support manager John McLaren's decision to allow Felix to exit the game after just 97 pitches. Better safe than sorry, right? Bedard is already having health issues and you'd hate to see Felix hurt himself early in the year again like he did last season. Sure, he didn't hear a pop or tweak anything, so maybe it's not the same as a pitcher exiting a game early to prevent further injury. Either way, Felix wasn't feeling like himself and he felt that the bullpen would be more effective at that point in the game.
The other arguement in this issue is that McLaren needs to take charge of his team and sit Felix down between innings. "Felix, you're dealing out there," McLaren would say. "They can't figure you out. Our bullpen is already stretched and hasn't been all that effective. I need you to push yourself one more inning and shut them down for the win."
I can identify with both sides of the argument. In support of the decision to remove Hernandez from the game, pitchers that are tired and overworked tend to hurt themselves. Yes, Felix had only thrown 97 pitches, but he was on short rest and was obviously feeling the fatigue. When a pitcher is tired they tend to compensate and stray from their mechanics, resulting in injury. There is no need for Felix to risk hurting himself this early in the season against one of the worst teams in the league (on paper). If this is game 7 of the World Series, Felix probably pitches through torn elbow cartilage if he has to. And, on the other hand, if this is game 7 of the World Series John McLaren probably sends Felix back to the mound no matter how tired he is. Since this is so early in the season I don't fault McLaren for pulling Felix as some fans have.
In the final game of the series the bullpen once again failed to protect a late lead. O'Flaherty, in his third consecutive game, gave up a go-ahead home run to left-handed hitting Aubrey Huff in the 8th inning.
Getting swept in a four game series is always going to get people upset, but I've been getting mainly two reactions from people following the series. One, John McLaren is an idiot and doesn't know how to manage his team. Two, Eric O'Flaherty isn't good enough to pitch in critical situations.
The knocks on McLaren seem to come from his decision to pull Felix from the ballgame and his decision to pitch O'Flaherty three games in a row. As I mentioned above, I don't personally fault McLaren for pulling Felix. If it was later in the year I probably would, but not in April. As far as allowing O'Flaherty to pitch in three consecutive games, that was probably a dumb move at this point. At this point in the season I don't think you call his number three games in a row, no matter what his role is or how thin the bullpen is. Ryan Rowland-Smith was available in that third game, and as much as I don't think he's quite qualified for late-inning duty yet (despite his empathic save Tuesday against the Rays), he would have been the wiser option.
The relievers, O'Flaherty included, should be fine. It's still early and there is no reason to panic over uncharacteristic performances at this point. There is no reason to think that O'Flaherty won't return to form after a few bad outings, just like there is no reason for Baltimore Orioles fans to expect a World Series run because of a great start to the season.
Maybe some good came out of that horrible weekend. Roy Corcoran has done well in his time. I suspected during Spring Training that he might have been a good pickup. He has had a solid minor league career but just never had a shot in the majors. If he continues to shine and proves to be a go-to guy for Seattle, it may force the organization to keep Brandon Morrow in the minors where he belongs. The horrible showing in Baltimore could also convince the organization to go with a 7-man bullpen instead of six, a much wiser move. The bullpen is already spread way too thin and the surplus of bench players aren't getting their reps.