- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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Nationals manager Manny Acta finally had seen enough. Normally stoic, amazingly stoic, he threw up his hands and got rid of half his bullpen, sending three relievers to the minor leagues (two were designated for assignment), saying he was "tired of watching ball one, ball two. And if these new guys can't do it, then we'll find some who can."
Who could blame him?
Last weekend, the Nationals became the first team in history to lose three games of a three-game series despite leading in the ninth inning or later in all three.
And it's not just the Nationals; bad bullpens have provided a snapshot of the 2009 season. Last year, the bullpen ERA in the major leagues was 4.10. Through Thursday, it was 4.72. Nine teams, led by the Angels at 8.04, had a bullpen ERA of 6.00 or higher through Thursday. "Maybe it happens early every year," said one veteran scout, "but I can't remember bullpens ever being this bad. Every game I've seen, bullpens have been terrible."
Most managers say that defining the roles in the bullpen is their hardest job early in the season every year. This season, 12 teams opened with a different closer than the one with whom they finished the 2008 season. And already, several teams have switched closers. The Cardinals closed with rookie Jason Motte on Opening Day, but he gave up four runs in the ninth inning, turning a two-run lead into a two-run loss to the Pirates -- and he hasn't had a save chance since. The Rockies have replaced Huston Street with Manny Corpas. The Cubs seem to be alternating between Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol at closer.
Injuries to closers haven't helped bullpens, either. Milwaukee's Trevor Hoffman, the all-time saves leader, began the season on the disabled list, as did Detroit's Joel Zumaya and Oakland's Joey Devine, who is out for the season with an elbow injury. Toronto's B.J. Ryan, who threw 83-84 mph (not 90-91) most of the spring, was placed on the DL this week.
The perfect closer from last season, Brad Lidge, blew his first save of the season Saturday, ending his streak of 47 consecutive regular-season save chances converted (third longest of all time). In 7 2/3 innings this season, he has an 8.22 ERA, and has one 1-2-3 inning. "Lidge," said one NL manager, "could go in a minute." The same can be said for a lot of relievers, including a number of Cubs, who had 20 walks in their first 31 innings out of the 'pen.
And then there are the Yankees. In their seventh game of the season, they had to pitch outfielder Nick Swisher in a 15-5 loss to the Rays. Since Swisher became the first non-pitcher since Cubs outfielder Willie Smith in 1968 to strike out a batter, not allow a run and hit a home run in the same game, Yankee fans were screaming "We want Swisher!" as the Yankees' bullpen was giving up 17 hits and 14 runs in 7 2/3 innings of a 22-4 loss to the Indians last Saturday. Yankees reliever Anthony Claggett became the third pitcher in the last 55 years to give up eight runs and record five outs or fewer in his major league debut.
Former Yankee Dan Giese, now a reliever with Oakland, became the first pitcher in history to allow a walk-off home run in his first two appearances with a new team -- first to Toronto's Lyle Overbay, then to the Yankees' Melky Cabrera. Marlins reliever Hayden Penn walked Nationals pitcher Daniel Cabrera, which is significant given that Cabrera had batted 18 times in his major league career, struck out 17 times and never reached base. Cleveland's Jensen Lewis allowed four home runs in his first seven innings this season. Pirates rookie reliever Donnie Veal had a recent appearance in which he threw 40 pitches, 16 strikes. Dodgers rookie reliever Ronald Belisario threw wide of catcher Russell Martin on an intentional walk Wednesday night, allowing the eventual winning run to move up to third. And poor Giants rookie reliever Joe Martinez was hit in the head with a line drive off the bat of Mike Cameron. Martinez suffered multiple fractures to his skull and a concussion, spent a few days in the hospital, and went on the DL.
The Padres' bullpen has no left-hander, and the group is so young that one of the rookies actually asked ace Jake Peavy whether he had pitched against him last season in the Pacific Coast League. On April 15, Orioles relievers Radhames Liz, Brian Bass and Matt Albers threw 116 pitches in 4 1/3 innings and allowed 12 hits and 10 runs in a 19-6 loss to the Rangers. And last Wednesday night, three days after the bullpen purge by the Nationals, they lost to the Braves, 1-0, on a bases-loaded walk in the ninth inning by reliever Mike Hinckley.
Perhaps the ultimate reliever indignity came Wednesday night in the Rangers-Blue Jays game in Toronto. In the 11th inning, the Rangers summoned reliever Darren O'Day, who had just been claimed on waivers from the Mets. But since he arrived at the game so late, there was no time to make him a uniform, so he was given the uniform of pitcher Kason Gabbard. "I was confused," Toronto's Kevin Millar said. "Gabbard is a left-hander." Millar then drilled a game-winning single, and the next day, Gabbard was traded to the Red Sox.
It has been that kind of year for relievers.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.
Whatever the reason -- age, inexperience, injury -- bullpens around the majors are getting lit up this season.