For starters, Brewers' rotation is struggling
Roenicke says pitchers are just one component of his team's shortcomings
MILWAUKEE -- Dodgers manager Don Mattingly arrived at Miller Park on Monday and batted away questions about his job security. He had the ultimate answer -- reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, who gave his skipper a one-day vacation by working all nine innings of a 3-1 victory.
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has no such weapon. His starting pitchers, to a man, are struggling.
"It's definitely a concern. It's always a concern," Roenicke said. "Starting pitching, if you look at most teams, that's how you win. I don't want to say that the reason where we are is just the starting pitching, because it's not. Offensively we've had some dry spells, and when we've pitched well, we haven't hit the ball at all.
"So it's not just that. But you win with starting pitching."
The Brewers have not been winning. They are 4-16 in May and 18-27 overall, last in the National League Central. The just-completed Dodgers series was particularly ugly. On Wednesday, Wily Peralta watched defenders miss a pair of makeable plays before walking home a pair of runs and falling into a 6-0 hole without escaping the second inning. The day before, Hiram Burgos lasted only 3 1/3 innings. On Monday, Yovani Gallardo made it through six innings, but needed 105 pitches; Kershaw needed 71 pitches to go the same distance on the way to his complete game.
With more than a quarter of the season in the books, Brewers starters are 11-19 with a 5.28 ERA in 45 games, worst in the NL and one of only four clubs in the Majors with a starters' ERA above 5.00. They have allowed 1.50 walks plus hits per inning pitched, tied with the Padres for worst in the league.
The team's best starter has been right-hander Kyle Lohse, who owns a 3.76 ERA. But he will miss his scheduled start on Saturday because of what he called a "cranky" elbow.
Gallardo's ERA is 4.50 after 10 starts and he has allowed 1.47 walks plus hits per inning pitched, 49th among the 57 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Marco Estrada, who was to be the team's No. 2 starter before owner Mark Attanasio signed Lohse, has a 5.44 ERA entering his start against the Pirates on Friday. The 24-year-old Peralta's ERA is 6.45, and his 1.70 WHIP is second-worst among regular NL starters. Twenty-five-year-old Burgos is at 6.44, boosted by 10 earned runs in three innings against the Reds on May 11.
Brewers starters have averaged 5.56 innings per outing, taxing a bullpen that has been a bright spot of late.
"Obviously, I don't think we can get by with five innings from our starters, doing it this way the whole season," Roenicke said. "No."
There are no obvious answers at Triple-A Nashville. Burgos, last year's Brewers Minor League Pitcher of the Year, is already up. Top prospect Tyler Thornburg surrendered five runs on seven hits over 5 1/3 innings on Wednesday and fell to 0-6 with a 6.99 ERA through 10 starts. No. 3 prospect Johnny Hellweg is 2-4 with a 4.33 ERA, but has as many walks (33) as strikeouts.
"The hits to innings are really good [for Hellweg]," Roenicke said, "but you get to the walks and strikeouts and they don't quite look right."
Of Thornburg, Roenicke said, "I don't know. The numbers aren't very good."
If the Brewers' trends do not change, trouble may be looming. Friday begins a stretch of 20 games in as many days.
A complete game or two in that stretch would certainly help. Trouble is, the Brewers have not enjoyed a complete-game pitching performance for more than two years.
Since Gallardo's sensational two-hit shutout of the Braves at Miller Park on April 5, 2011, every other team in Major League Baseball has logged at least four complete games. The other four teams in the NL Central have at least six. More than half of Major League teams (16 of the 30) have at least 10. The Phillies have 26, and the Rays 22.
The Brewers have zero.
"I'm not necessarily bothered by that, but would you like to have some guys go start to finish?" pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "Yes, because that gives the bullpen a rest, too. So I would love to have guys get out there start to finish.
"I think they all are capable of doing it. We just have to do it. You have to be able to have your pitches to the point where you're minimizing what you're doing out there. When you throw a 20-25 pitch inning, you're just taking an inning off the back end. We have to be more efficient."
Of a Brewers bullpen that has already logged 148 2/3 innings, fifth-most in the NL, Kranitz said, "They shouldn't have to pitch this much. The starters, they have to get it going. It's plain and simple. And they know that."
Both Kranitz and Roenicke dismissed one widely-held notion among Brewers fans, that pitchers are somehow taught to "nibble" around the plate. Not true, Roenicke said. He said the Brewers have been stocked with a high percentage of command pitchers in recent seasons, who are less able to simply pound the strike zone and move quickly through innings.
"I don't think anybody is teaching guys, 'Don't ever give in, just hit corners, don't worry about your pitch count,' Roenicke said. "Nobody is talking that way."
Since Gallardo's shutout, the Brewers have seen opponents go the distance against them 11 times, including the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright twice. It's a good list that includes Chris Carpenter, Cole Hamels, Matt Garza and Tim Hudson.
"We swing. We don't get walks a lot," Roenicke explained.
If anyone is going to complete a game, it should be Gallardo, who has four complete games in his career and has pitched into the eighth inning 17 times. Roenicke believes Gallardo's ball-strike ratio has been out of whack this season because of the diminished velocity on his fastball, leading to more nibbling. But he and Gallardo both spoke of better life on the right-hander's pitches against the Dodgers.
Gallardo was asked, will the Brewers ever throw another complete game?
"We want to," Gallardo said. "We're trying to win, that's the first thing. And if it comes down to one of us going out there and throwing a shutout, that's what we're going to do."