ST. PETERSBURG -- While continuing to express confidence in first-half stalwart Will Smith, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke suggested Wednesday that he may begin trying someone else in a setup role.
Smith was touched for four runs by the Rays on three walks and two hits Tuesday during an eighth-inning rally that snapped a 1-1 tie and sent the Brewers to their fourth loss in five games. Both hits were RBI doubles off right-handed bats, continuing the left-hander's recent troubles against the opposite side.
Mostly a starting pitcher in the Angels' and Royals' systems prior to this season, Smith grabbed eighth-inning duties for the Brewers by dominating left-handed hitters and holding his own against righties. Through the end of June, right-handed batters were hitting .277 against him, with a .796 OPS and eight extra-base hits in 108 plate appearances. But in Smith's first 10 appearances of July, right-handed batters were batting .417 with a 1.283 OPS and six extra-base hits in 30 plate appearances.
"Maybe what's happening is he's facing more righties now because he's in this position. I know he is -- and the numbers aren't as good as they were before," Roenicke said. "But until we find somebody -- and Zach Duke is certainly throwing the ball well enough that I could probably do that with him … I have to have somebody to pitch that inning. And then I can mix and match other innings.
"I think it always works out better if you have somebody to do the eighth and somebody to do the ninth, and then you can pick the sixth and seventh. That's how we've done it, and it's worked."
With Brandon Kintzler battling inconsistency and Jim Henderson still working back from a shoulder injury, Roenicke's choice for the eighth inning essentially comes down to one of two left-handers: Smith or Duke.
Duke, another former starting pitcher, has been the hotter hand of late. He entered Wednesday on a streak of 15 scoreless appearances, with the lowest ERA (1.05) of any left-handed reliever in Major League Baseball. He had held right-handed hitters to a .396 OPS in July -- better than any right-hander on the team, with 11 strikeouts in 19 at-bats.
But Roenicke noted the difference between the two in terms of stuff; Duke operating with varying velocities and arm angles, and Smith with more raw power. The choice in coming days, Roenicke said, will be based on whether a given eighth inning calls for one style or the other.
Asked about recent results against right-handed hitters, Smith said, "It's a game of adjustments all the time, and I think they've made their adjustments. Now it's time for me to come back and make my adjustments. But it's tough to go off [Tuesday] night, because I couldn't throw strikes. That's what killed me."
Which leads to another question: Are Smith's recent command wobbles related to his unprecedented workload? Smith led the Major Leagues as of Wednesday morning with 55 appearances.
He has consistently said he feels strong, and that the heavy workload is not an issue.
"Maybe, I don't know," Roenicke said. "He came out yesterday and his first pitch was 96 [mph], so I don't think it's affecting the velocity. But maybe location. Maybe it is. I don't know."