Among the various struggles that have plagued the St. Louis Cardinals this season, their bullpen woes stand out especially in the latter innings.
The latest episode of the St. Louis Cardinals‘ bullpen instability was on display in the recent four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cardinals dropped three of the four games at home, and fell further behind the first-place Brew Crew.
The series started innocently enough. The Redbirds cruised to a smooth 6-0 win in the first game of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader. That pushed St. Louis’ win streak to four. In the nightcap, the Cardinals and Brewers went back-and-forth, with the home team tying the game at five in the seventh inning, courtesy of Matt Carpenter‘s twelfth home run of the season.
With late-inning stalwart Trevor Rosenthal on the mound to begin the next inning, the Cardinals figured to be in decent shape to take the lead in the bottom half of the eighth. As has often happened, control betrayed Rosenthal. He walked the first two batters to begin the inning. He then surrendered consecutive hits and was removed from the game with his team down by a run.
On Wednesday night, the Cardinals trailed 6-0 after an inning and a half. In the bottom of the second, the offense rallied to cut the deficit to 6-4. That remained the score until the seventh inning, when the Brewers tacked on a run against Kevin Siegrist to extend the lead to three. That insurance run proved consequential, as Aledmys Diaz‘s two-run home run in the eighth made it 7-6 rather than tying the game.
On Thursday night, the Cardinals and Brewers once again battled back and forth, carrying a 4-4 tie into the ninth inning. St. Louis’ closer Seung-Hwan Oh took to the mound in the top of the ninth, hoping to send the tied contest to the bottom half for the home team to walk off with a victory.
Instead, Oh surrendered two costly hits with 0-2 counts; one being Eric Thames‘ go-ahead two-run home run. The Cardinals dropped the series finale 6-4, losing the last three games against the Brewers.
Rosenthal, Siegrist, and Oh’s struggles in the Milwaukee series were part of an ongoing saga in the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen this season. The middle innings have been turbulent, but the late innings haven’t been lights-out by the relief corps either.
Rosenthal has been dominant for most of the season, but when his command goes awry, things can get out of hand in a hurry. Siegrist hasn’t been the same pitcher we’re used to seeing. Oh hasn’t been nearly as sharp as he was in his rookie year in 2016.
Enter John Brebbia.
The 27-year-old right-hander joined the Cardinals bullpen and made his major-league debut at the end of May when the team demoted the struggling Miguel Socolovich. In eight appearances since then, he’s been scored upon in only one of them. That came via a two-run home run hit by the Cincinnati Reds’ Scooter Gennett, part of his historic four-home-run night.
In 8 2/3 innings, he’s allowed only three hits, walked one, and struck out five. That’s good for a small-sample-size BAA of .103 and WHIP of 0.58. He pitched in three of the four games in the Milwaukee series, hurling 3 2/3 scoreless innings. He delivered two big innings in Thursday’s game. Brebbia bailed out starter Michael Wacha when he was on the ropes in the fifth.
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Thursday’s outing was the second time Brebbia went more than an inning in a game. Manager Mike Matheny has used him primarily as a middle-inning swing man in his first two weeks with the club.
Brebbia features a four-seam fastball that sits at 92-94 mph, but can reach 95-96. He also has a plus slider that he uses as a strikeout pitch.
Brebbia has the stuff to be an effective late-inning weapon. The problem with the Cardinals’ bullpen is that if they want to use Brebbia as a late-inning reliever, they’ll have even more trouble simply sustaining a lead into the later innings.
With the starting pitchers having cooled off from a remarkable beginning to the season, the bullpen will need to record more big outs in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings. When the starters were pitching deep into games, the Cardinals could simply lean on Rosenthal and Oh to hold on to every lead the offense provides them.
Matt Bowman was to be the sixth and seventh inning specialist out of the pen, but his recent struggles have left Matheny searching for other options. Brebbia is one of those options the manager has.
Even if Brebbia doesn’t find himself pitching with leads in the late innings this season, he might have a home there in the future. Oh is on the final year of his initial two-year contract with the Cardinals, and he turns 35 next month.
Rosenthal turned 27 earlier this year. He is arbitration-eligible for one more year before he can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018 season. Despite his sporadic struggles, he has undeniably electric stuff. Represented by Scott Boras, he’d command a high price on the open market.
The Cardinals will have to determine this year and next whether or not to offer contract extensions to Oh and/or Rosenthal to be the team’s closer further into the future. If they don’t they can either let them walk in free agency or use them as trade chips.
If the Cardinals can’t turn things around soon, murmurs of the Redbirds selling big-league pieces to contending teams will begin to swirl. If that is the case, Rosenthal and Oh will be on the short list for teams looking for late-inning bullpen help. That could open up an opportunity for John Brebbia to shine. For now, he’s been a pleasant surprise in a bullpen sorely in need of confidence and consistency.