Expected to be one of the Rangers' strong points, their relief corps has been absorbing a Texas-sized pounding
Even in these offense-happy times, the Rangers' 17-16 victory over the A's last Friday was a novelty—unless you count the combustible performance of the Texas relievers. At the start of the sixth inning manager Johnny Oates called on lefthander Matt Perisho to protect a 7-5 lead. Perisho walked the bases loaded and then surrendered a bases-clearing double to Ben Grieve. Over the next 1? innings the brushfire swelled into a four-alarm conflagration: Perisho gave up four more hits and seven more runs, and was only spared a loss when Texas pulled off the biggest comeback in franchise history. His successor, righthander Jeff Zimmerman, allowed a solo homer in his inning of work.
"Sometimes a manager has to put glue on the seat of his pants to keep from going out to the mound after every hitter," Oates said later. "We had only one guy who could give us innings tonight, and that was Perisho."
Bullpens are fickle beasts, a lesson Oates, if he didn't know it already, is learning this season. The Texas relief corps, thought to be a Rangers strength when the season began, had seven losses and coughed up six save chances in Texas's first 29 games, figures it didn't reach until its 90th (losses) and 79th (blown saves) games last season. Through Sunday the pen had a 3-7 record, only three saves and the American League's third-highest ERA (6.10). First batters faced by the relievers were hitting a brisk .365. "I try not to compare this year to last," says Zimmerman. "Last year is over."
Especially for him. A rookie last year, Zimmerman went 8-0 with a 0.86 ERA and one save in the first half and was an American League All-Star, but he then tailed off down the stretch and has been ineffective this season. Through Sunday he was 0-4 with a 6.92 ERA and, having blown games on everything from a walk-off homer to a ninth-inning balk, was seemingly inventing ways to lose. On May 4 against the Devil Rays, Zimmerman struck out the leadoff hitter in the 11th inning but grooved a slider to Greg Vaughn, who whacked it for a game-winning homer. Against the A's last Friday he retired the first two hitters he faced on five pitches and then left a two-strike slider to Terrence Long hanging over the plate. It too ended up in the seats, for the fifth home run Zimmerman had given up this season. "Last year was almost a curse," he says. "Everything came so easy in the first half, I didn't have to make adjustments. I just got the sign and threw. Now there's a little more involved."
Zimmerman hasn't been the only culprit in Texas's meltdown. Sidearming lefthander Mike Venafro, who sparkled as a setup man last year, missed most of spring training with a strained ligament in his left index finger and has struggled to catch up: He had a 4.66 ERA, and lefthanded batters were hitting .348 against him. With Mike Munoz on the disabled list (elbow tendinitis), Perisho is the only other lefty in the pen, and lefthanded hitters were 9 for 15 against him.
Things are no better from the right side. Righthander Tim Crabtree's 9.20 ERA was the second highest (minimum 10 innings) in the American League; he had allowed 23 hits in 14? innings. Closer John Wetteland had all three of the Rangers' saves and a 4.50 ERA, but he had already blown three saves, just four fewer than he did all of last year. Only rookie righthander Francisco Cordero (1.69 ERA in 12 appearances), acquired in the trade that sent slugger Juan Gonzalez to the Tigers, has performed well.
Across the board the missing ingredient has been command. Texas relievers hadn't been issuing an inordinate number of walks (40 in 79? innings), but they were leaving pitches in fat parts of the strike zone. Hence, they'd given up a startling 105 hits. "Everyone goes through stretches when the hangers get whacked and the good pitches get fouled off," says Rangers pitching coach Dick Bosman. "Everyone starts questioning his ability, especially guys with little experience, wondering if they belong."
Oates insists he'll let his bullpen work out of its skid. "I'd rather be accused of being too patient than try to make a change too quickly," he says. "We're not going to win without them."
Lord of Discipline
Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood