No moment better epitomized the first half for the San Francisco Giants maligned bullpen than the seventh inning of the club’s 5-4 win on June 11.
As has so often been the case, the process was ugly, but the results were acceptable. During that frame, manager Bruce Bochy called on five relievers to retire three Los Angeles Dodgers.
As the manager trudged back and forth from the dugout to the mound, the parade of relievers did just enough the keep the Giants in the game. The group allowed only one Dodger to cross the plate, and in the 10th inning, Buster Posey would send the Giants home with a single.
“A big reason why we’re where we’re at is this bullpen,” Bochy said, as his first-place squad sits at 19-9 in one-run contests. “You look at how we’ve played in these close games. [They’re] a big reason why.”
That five-reliever seventh also underscored the fundamental issue facing the pen. While Bochy is famous for his late-inning wizardry, this season his guys seems unclear about when their numbers will be called or for how long they’ll be needed.
“Roles are getting a little bit blurry at times,” admitted Javier Lopez.
When asked to assess the state of the bullpen at the midway point, Lopez — one of the most cerebral Giants — paused to collect his thoughts.
“Well, I think it’s — we’re evolving,” Lopez explained. “When you look at the past years, we had a little bit more set roles than this year.”
In past seasons, the Giants also had seasoned personnel coming out of the left-field pen.
During the club’s last three World Series runs, Bochy could always count on his core four: Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Lopez.
That’s no longer the case.
The retired Affeldt still makes regular appearances at AT&T Park, but he’s not making quick work of left-handed hitting sluggers. Instead, he’s dropping by the clubhouse or hanging out at batting practice to chop it up with his old teammates.
Romo has appeared in just four games due to a flexor strain in his right elbow.
Lopez and Casilla are both healthy, but at 38 and 35, respectively, neither vet has pitched up to their usual standards. Lopez is lugging a 5.40 ERA and has struggled to retire lefties on a consistent basis. Casilla sports a respectable 3.23 ERA, but he’s also blown the second-most saves in the National League.
The right-hander’s difficulty slamming the door in the ninth has left Bochy in an unenviable spot.
When a left-handed batter is slated to lead off the final inning, the skipper sometimes calls on Lopez to get the first out before turning to Casilla. When a lefty is due up later in the frame, Casilla gets the nod before giving way to Lopez.
While making sense from a tactical perspective, the fluid role has posed challenges for Casilla.
“As a pitcher, you would like to have that stability. You would like to know what inning you’re going to pitch. You would like to know in what situation you’re going to come in,” Casilla said via team translator Erwin Higueros. “But at the same time, you can’t have it that way.”
The Dominican pitcher’s ninth-inning struggles have led to constant speculation that the organization will reel in a front-line closer before the August 1 trade deadline. As he sat in front of his locker — looking as calm and relaxed as ever — Casilla shrugged and insisted the trade talk doesn’t bother him.
“We’re just team employees. I guess that’s the best way that I can explain it,” Casilla said. “We’re going to do what our bosses say — at the same time understanding that it is the best for the team.”
The way he talks, it seems Casilla sees a new arrival as an inevitability.
“We understand that this is a business. We understand that the higher ups are going to make a decision,” Casilla said. “And they’re going to acquire a player that is going to eventually help the team.”
Like Casilla, Lopez doesn’t view the summer speculation as a threat to his job.
“It’s a good thing to hear any additions because that means you’re doing some things in the standings,” Lopez reasoned.
The left-hander knows all about the trade season. On the day of the deadline in 2010, the Giants acquired Lopez from the Pittsburgh Pirates for a pair of prospects.
“I think most of the guys are not immune to the fact that they’re going to be looking for bullpen help, outfield help — any sort of help,” Lopez said.
Health permitting, some of that help will come from players already in the organization.
Matt Cain is due to rejoin the rotation after the All-Star break, which would allow Albert Suarez to shift into the unheralded-but-vital swingman role, made famous by Yusmeiro Petit.
“He’s kind of been a savior of sorts,” Bochy said of the rookie. “That’s how good a job I think he’s done.”
After a setback, months of rehabbing and 11 minor league appearances, Romo is on the verge of returning to the Giants.
If Romo can reclaim the eighth inning, Bochy would eventually be able to push his less experienced relievers into lower-stress roles in the middle innings.
But patience will be required. As was the strategy with his rehab, Bochy said he will slowly work Romo back into his setup job.
That means that the likes of Cory Gearrin, Hunter Strickland, George Kontos and Josh Osich will continue to draw high-profile assignments.
Lopez thinks, in the big picture, that can only help.
“They’re gaining experience with every game that we have,” Lopez said. “I think that’s a wonderful thing that’s going to pay off if and when we get to the playoffs. I think it will just be nice to have them in big time spots throughout the season.”