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Examining bench/bullpen usage: How the Cubs found out about Randy Rosario

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The lefthander looks like a potential solid bullpen piece.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

I self-identify as a minor-league guy. Not because the talent is better (It isn’t), the games are more well-played (they aren’t), or the games matter more (they don’t). I’m a minor-league guy because I learn more listening to players I’m less familiar with. Also, my aim as part fan, part student of the game, and part educator is well-served with information out of the mainstream. Nonetheless, I’m often monitoring MLB games, and Bench Use figures to be a periodic assessment of curious managerial decisions.

For instance, Saturday afternoon, two games of interest were running concurrently. Both games had rather curious bullpen usage decisions. One worked rather well in a loss. One backfired in a win. And, a third backfired in a loss. Today, I look with a bit of attention to detail at moves made by managers Joe Maddon, Jim Riggleman, and Mike Matheny.

Maddon’s came the earliest. Kyle Hendricks misfired in the sixth inning. Randy Rosario was sent into a no-win situation with the Cubs down a pair, and two runners in scoring position. He retired the first two hitters without incident, and finished the inning with a strikeout after a Rob Manfred four-finger special.

Nobody reached or hit the ball out of the infield on him in the seventh. Weeks, months, and possibly years from now, Rosario’s outing might well be the most memorable part of the game. Probably not, but time will tell.

However, it’s very likely that Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey learned something about Rosario. Rosario likely learned something about himself. Those six outs were a very valid silver lining in a frustrating game, particularly if the success can be replicated.

***

Heading to the eighth, the Reds led 4-3. After Amir Garrett closed the seventh with a flourish, I was a bit surprised that Riggleman went to his closer in the eighth. After all, the Reds were playing again that night. A two-inning total of as few as 25 pitches might put him out of commission for both Game 2, and maybe the day after.

The Reds are the team that should be in “learning curve” mode. Raisel Iglesias is a proven leverage piece who might get traded for long-term value in July. Despite that, Riggleman used him in the eighth. Which indicates he’d go again in the ninth.

Two options seem better to me than what happened. One would be to send Dylan Floro out for the eighth, and Iglesias for the ninth. That should have worked, and would keep both viable for the next two games in the set. That’s the logical one.

The counter-intuitive one would be to send out minor league callup Kevin Shackelford (or someone similar) for the eighth, with Floro ready if needed. While not the “alpha male” managerial move that it was to send out Iglesias, it would have allowed Riggleman a chance to do what Maddon did with Rosario.

I’d have probably used Floro in the eighth, but the Reds might have benefited more from a gamble there.

***

As long as Mike Matheny and Dave Roberts fill out lineup cards, I will have head-scratching moments watching games progress. Matheny’s eighth-inning bullpen protocol was bizarre, though I agree with his first move in that inning.

The Cardinals spent money and a draft pick to add Greg Holland. He’s been brutal, and using him in the eighth is a way to try to get him reset. I’d have probably done the same. A reasonably short outing by John Gant left St. Louis’ pen a bit shortened. However, Holland, John Brebbia, and closer Bud Norris were ready.

Holland eased through the first two hitters before walking Nick Williams on five pitches. A Scott Kingery triple and a Jorge Alfaro single would give the Phillies all the offense they’d need.

As Kingery crossed the plate, Matheny went to the bullpen. And, in a game his team already trailed, brought in closer Norris. Yes, I grasp it took Norris a bit to get ready. However, part of the idea of saving the closer for the ninth is to avoid burning him for 26 pitches with none of them made with his team tied or ahead.

Matheny is welcome to run a bullpen as he likes, but the idea of bringing in a closer a day after he made 26 needless pitches seems foolish. Brebbia should have been brought in to bail out Holland. Brebbia might pass him on the leverage board very soon.

***

As pitchers limp toward the five innings per start level, teams will need to have more usable relievers, not fewer. Maddon, whether you like his pen usage in general or not, likes to allow youngsters to succeed, fail, or both. By doing that, he possibly has a better pulse on what he has in reserve. You get to decide whether his success in August and September is despite his “experiments” or because of it.

Very rarely has a team lost a MLB postseason spot entirely because of a game in May. Maddon was more willing to “trial-by-fire” Rosario than Riggleman was with Shackelford or Jared Hughes, or Matheny with Brebbia.

Feel free to respond with which bullpen scenarios you would have rolled with. I’m doing these to get you to consider why you think what you think. And there will be more curious decisions as the year progresses. Thanks to Matheny and Roberts.