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Mariners 5, Cubs 4: Bullpen Mismanagement

If not for bad bullpen work this season, the 2013 Cubs could be close to .500. At least part of that problem can be laid at the feet of manager Dale Sveum.


The headline to this recap isn't totally fair. I mean, the players are paid to execute and do their jobs and the Cubs' bullpen failed miserably at that in Friday night's 5-4, 10-inning loss to the Mariners.

But it's also the manager's job to put his bullpen, and thus his team, in the best position to win, and in my view, Dale Sveum failed at that yet again Friday night.

Let's review the (mis)use of Cubs relievers in Seattle, shall we?

Travis Wood was sailing along through yet another outstanding start. He'd given up just one run, a solo homer to Jason Bay, and had just gotten Dustin Ackley on a called third strike when Sveum dutifully trudged to the mound to lift Wood. Why was that? Well, Wood had reached 109 pitches and oh, no, we can't have a pitcher go that far! Carlos Villanueva was summoned, for the platoon advantage, I presume, though that is way, way, way overdone in modern baseball. The next two hitters, Mike Zunino and Brad Miller, had gone a combined 0-for-3 with a walk against Wood. Zunino is a rookie who came into the game hitting .212/.257/.333. Miller was making his major-league debut. Travis Wood can't retire those two? Wood has gone past 109 pitches twice this year.

Me, I'd have let him finish the inning. Villanueva got out of the inning, but not before allowing a run to score.

Second mistake by Dale: Hey, Dale! Did you know it's the regular season and you don't have to trot out a new pitcher every inning? That's especially true in American League parks where the pitcher doesn't bat. Villanueva threw eight pitches. Why was it so urgent to get James Russell in the game?

Russell was bad Friday night; he gave up two runs to tie the game, though, to be fair, the second one scored when Brian Bogusevic made an ill-advised dive to try to catch Raul Ibanez's sinking liner. It went to the wall in left field for a triple, tying the game. On the WGN broadcast, Jim Deshaies said he had no issue with Bogusevic making this attempt; with all due respect, I disagree. In a one-run game, you have to keep that ball in front of you.

Blake Parker came in and ended the threat and had an uneventful ninth, but then succumbed to the problem that's kept him out of the big leagues (mostly) until now -- walks. He walked the first two batters of the 10th inning; after Shawn Camp replaced Parker, a sacrifice bunt moved the runners to second and third. An intentional walk loaded the bases, and you know this isn't going to end well, and it didn't, with Zunino bouncing a single up the middle to win it for the Mariners.

So while the pitchers didn't execute, and a fielder didn't make a play he should have, I'm laying this one mostly on what I see as Dale Sveum's poor bullpen choices. Sometimes you have to leave a pitcher in who's cruising, even when his pitch count might be slightly too high, and then, there are times when you can leave a reliever in for more than one inning, especially when he hasn't thrown that many pitches and he's been a starter this year. One and a half seasons of managing and Dale doesn't seem to have learned that lesson. It ruined another excellent start from Wood. I'm assuming that's Gatorade in the cup he's drinking from in the photo at the top of this post, but...

This all wasted a Cubs offense that actually produced, though two of the four home runs scored on solo homers. Alfonso Soriano, apparently awakened by the DH role and two days off, homered and singled and Dioner Navarro also homered. You can't play Navarro every day, but he is having the best offensive season of his career and needs just one more homer to tie his career high, even though he has just 93 at-bats. Ryan Sweeney accounted for another run with a triple.

One thing I noticed, and so did Len and JD, is that despite the fact that they pulled in the fences at Safeco Field, offense there is still low. The thing we all noticed is the huge amount of foul territory -- there were at least five or six popups caught behind third base that would have been in the seats at Wrigley Field. Someday, the Mariners might have to adjust that, too.

This game should have been won, yet another game in which the Cubs had a late-inning lead and couldn't hold it; it dropped the Cubs' record in one-run games to 9-17 and, with a run differential of -13, the Cubs are now five games behind their Pythagorean projection, 33-45 instead of 38-40. This team could be close to .500 with better bullpen work.

For Soriano, just as I suspected, the Cubs are now considering platooning him:

Before Friday night's game with the Mariners in Seattle, manager Dale Sveum said when David DeJesus returns from his shoulder sprain sometime after the All-Star break, he will have to find a way to get three left-handed hitting outfielders into the lineup more often.

That means DeJesus, Nate Schierholtz and either Ryan Sweeney or Bogusevic in left.

"We're going to have to see what happens," Sveum said. "A couple of them might be part of our future — left-handed hitters who are athletes, two-way players who hit the ball out of the ballpark. We'll work it out to figure out the playing time."

It's clear that Soriano can still mash lefthanded pitching -- .298/.330/.468 against LHP in 94 at-bats this year -- and he appears to love the DH role, where he has hit 372/.402/.769 in 78 career at-bats with eight (!) home runs. Are the Cubs trying to push Soriano into accepting a trade somewhere where he can DH? (Among contending teams, the Rays could use one, for example.)

Whatever the case, the Cubs' biggest problem is solid bullpen pitching. If they can figure that out, maybe they'll win a few games. They'll try it again against the Mariners at 6:15 p.m. CT -- yes, a late-afternoon start in Seattle -- with Jeff Samardzija facing Aaron Harang.