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April 13, 2011 at 6:36 PM

Tough ending (to game, homestand) for Mariners as bullpen falters

(Chris Ray reaches for a new ball after giving up Jose Bautista’s three-run homer in the eighth inning Wednesday. Photo by Associated Press).
For the record, I first-guessed Eric Wedge’s decision to bring in Chris Ray rather than leave in Jamey Wright to start the eighth, and I have the Tweet to prove it. Wright has yet to give up a run this year, spring training or regular season, and breezed through his one batter in the seventh, throwing just five pitches to strike out Jose Molina.
I asked Wedge after the game about not leaving in Wright, and he said he wants to have established roles for these guys. Ray is the primary eighth-inning guy, and it was his time of the game.
“We’ve done a good job in the bullpen,” he said. “The guys have been set up; we’ve had them in roles. Jamey came in and did his job. Chris just didn’t have it today. He threw a couple of good sliders to Bautista, then he just spun the next one and left it over the plate.”

I’ll say this from experience: Relievers like to know their roles, and bullpens generally work best when managers stick to them. So rather than questioning this particular decision, the question moving forward is whether Ray is the right guy for the eighth. This is an issue, of course, because David Aardsma’s injury has knocked the most logical eighth-inning guy, Brandon League, to the ninth.
Ray has now worked five games this year, a total of 4 2/3 innings. He’s given up 11 hits and eight earned runs for a 15.43 ERA. Now, relievers’ ERAs can be quite misleading at any time of year, but particularly early in the season, fluctuating madly from outing to outing. But the statistic that stands out most glaringly to me with Ray is zero strikeouts.
Ray, who saved 33 games for Baltimore in 2006, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2007, essentially missed all of 2008, struggled mightily in 2009 (7.27 ERA in 46 games), and had a better but not great season last year with Texas and San Francisco (“one ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy”). Until Ray can develop a little more swing-and-miss ability, I think Wedge needs to think hard about giving that role to Wright (who has struck out five in the same number of innings worked as Ray, 4 2/3, while allowing just two hits.)
The M’s also have to hope that their two relief rookies, Josh Lueke and Tom Wilhelmsen, settle in quickly. They were roughed up a bit today, Lueke giving up two hits and a run in one-third of an inning, Wilhelmsen two hits and a run in one inning. Lueke in five outings has giving up five earned runs in four innings (11.25 ERA) while Wilhelmsen has given up six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings (9.64 ERA). The two have combined for nine walks in those 8 2/3 innings, which isn’t going to cut it. On the positive side, they have 12 strikeouts, indicative of the live stuff that enticed the Mariners in the first place.
Wedge was asked today about what appears to be a drop in velocity by Lueke this year compared to last.
“He was a little bit off today, but we’ve seen it (his velocity) some this year,” Wedge said. “It’s early. He didn’t have quite as much on the ball today. I saw that, too. But it’s in there. We saw it this spring and a few times this year.
“It’s more about command and getting the ball down for him and Wilhelmsen. It’s the big leagues, too. That comes into it a little bit, getting comfortable and allowing your ability to come through, too.”
It’s something to keep an eye on, particularly with a roster move looming when Franklin Gutierrez comes off the disabled list, possibly next week.



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