Roenicke laments Crew's lack of 'pen options

Roenicke laments Crew's lack of 'pen options

HOUSTON -- Manager Ron Roenicke was ready for the questions about the Brewers' ongoing bullpen dilemma, so he came out swinging Saturday.

In a spirited debate with the reporters who have watched late-inning losses scuttle the Brewers' bid to repeat as National League Central champions, Roenicke lamented his lack of good alternatives and dismissed the idea that the solution is as easy as bringing up more relief from the Minor Leagues.

"They've been struggling," Roenicke said. "We've been talking about the same thing for quite a while now. They're not throwing well. They're not throwing like they're capable of throwing. But there has to be options in order to change things. You guys want me to change things, but you don't give me any options to do it with. ...

"There's a lot of other teams that are in the same situation I am in, where they can't get through games. The Angels are one of them. The Angels are baffled as to what to do with their bullpen, and there's other teams that are just like that."

The Brewers have been hit particularly hard. John Axford's blown save Friday was the Brewers' 22nd this season, most in the Majors and already three more than Milwaukee suffered while winning a franchise-record 96 games in 2011. Only the Mets' bullpen (4.98 ERA) has been worse than the Brewers' (4.92 ERA) this season.

Both Axford and Francisco Rodriguez have been removed from the closer's role, making the currently most viable option Jim Henderson, a 29-year-old who pitched parts of 10 seasons in the Minor Leagues before a promotion last month.

But Roenicke on Saturday seemed to propose a wholly new system of bullpen management, one in which there is no ninth-inning specialist and you use your "closer" in the toughest situation, even if that means pitching him in a one-run game in the seventh inning.

"When you have two or three guys who are throwing well, you can cover the games when you're winning," Roenicke said. "When you don't have that many guys that are throwing well, you can't cover all of the innings every night. It's impossible.

"So, do people feel better about us blowing a game in the seventh inning, or do they feel better about losing the game in the ninth? Is there really a difference when you lose the game? To me, it's a loss."

Some players in Roenicke's own clubhouse feel differently, and have quietly argued that the nature of the Brewers' late-inning losses have made this season's slide particularly demoralizing.

Roenicke said he doesn't buy the line of reasoning that losing in the ninth inning is different.

"Why?" he asked. "Because it feels different? It's still a loss. What if you're losing all the games in the seventh inning and you're never using your best pitchers to win games? ... The ninth is only important now because of saves. Everyone talks about saves, about blown saves. If you really want to do it right, and you really want to win that game and you don't care about saves, you don't care about players' contracts, you just want to win those games, your closer does not always pitch the ninth inning."

The problem for the Brewers is that they are losing so many games with their best relievers -- Jose Veras, Rodriguez and Axford -- enduring poor seasons.

Which begged Roenicke's next challenge to reporters.

"Give me some options -- you tell me who you want in there," he said.

Henderson.

"I don't mind Henderson anywhere. I like Henderson," Roenicke said. "But it's not just the ninth."

Roenicke indicated that Henderson would "probably" be the closer on Saturday, should the need arise. Henderson saved the final two games of the Brewers' three-game sweep of the Reds earlier this week.

"I've been enjoying it, but at the same time it's tough to watch these hard circumstances," Henderson said. "We've been keeping the energy up, and everybody is rooting for the other guy when he goes in there. Every time we go out there, it feels like there's a lot of confidence."

So, Henderson's recent success aside, how does Roenicke explain an entire bullpen struggling with command and results?

"It's just a funk we're going through, and I don't know how long it's going to last," Roenicke said. "You guys act like I like sitting here and watching this every night, that it's easy to have choices to make. It's tough. It's tough for us to watch, too. It's tough for these players to go out and work their butts off. They're not trying to walk people. They're not trying to miss with breaking balls up in the zone. They work their butts off to pitch well, and they can't get it going."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.