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May 21, 2010

On the Beat

Ken Macha's Quandary

by John Perrotto

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Even on a night when his team won for the first time in nearly two weeks, manager Ken Macha couldn't totally enjoy his Brewers breaking their nine-game losing streak.

"I need to take a couple of Advil," Macha said following the Brewers' 4-3 victory over the Pirates on Thursday night at PNC Park.

Macha was likely the victim of the unusually high spring pollen count in western Pennsylvania. He spent part of his day cutting the grass at his home in the Pittsburgh area, as much an effort to put the losing streak out of his mind for a few hours than as an attempt to win an award for having the best lawn in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

He also has a couple of figurative headaches in his second season as the Brewers' manager. The Brewers are 16-25 and, though Macha has the support of general manager Doug Melvin, owner Mark Attanasio reportedly wants to change managers and give the job to bench coach and former Mets manager Willie Randolph.

Macha is also facing the stickiest of situations with closer and all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman is just four saves shy of 600 but has been awful this season with -2.026 WXRL, five blown saves in 10 opportunities, and seven home runs allowed in 13 innings. Macha has the difficult task of trying to determine whether Hoffman is in a slump or if he is finally losing his effectiveness at 42.

The Brewers' skipper called on Carlos Villanueva to pitch the ninth inning with the Brewers holding a one-run lead Thursday night, and the hurler slammed the door on the Pirates by inducing pinch-hitter Delwyn Young to ground into a game-ending double play. It was the sixth save of Villanueva's five-year career.

While the Brewers were splitting the two-game series with the Pirates, Hoffman was held out of action so he could do extensive pre-game work with pitching coach Rick Peterson. The Brewers believe Hoffman's arm slot has gotten too high in his delivery, and that has contributed to a loss of movement on both his famed changeup and fastball.

"When a hitter is going through a slump, he can come out early for extra batting practice or do extra work in the cage," Peterson said. "When a starting pitcher is having a tough time, he can work on the side between starts. It's different for relief pitchers, though. They never have an opportunity to practice their craft once the season starts. You can't risk wearing a reliever out by allowing him to work on his pitches before a game because you might need him to pitch in the game that night."

Hoffman hasn't needed to sharpen his skills very much during an 18-year career that has spanned 999 relief appearances. He seems certain to wind up as one of the few relievers to be elected to the Hall of Fame. When asked after Thursday night's game if Hoffman would get the call if a save situation arose Friday night when the Brewers play the Twins at Target Field, Macha was noncommittal: "I don't know. We'll have to see how it goes."

Macha is not one to mince words or play games with the media, so he wasn't bluffing. Macha is truly torn as he realizes that Hoffman had 3.362 WXRL last season and is close to a major milestone. Yet the Brewers are 7 1/2 games behind the first-place Cardinals in the National League Central and can't afford to drop much further.

"It's a tough situation for everyone," Hoffman said. "I still believe that I can get the job done, but I also know that I'm going to the mound right know without all my bullets and it's tough to close out a game that way. I'm letting the ballclub down right now. I'm not getting the job done. I'm making hard on everybody. I'm making it hard on (Macha) to decide what to do and I'm making it hard on my teammates. We've been struggling as a team, then when you lose games in the ninth inning, it deflates you that much more. It's not a good feeling, especially when you're the guy responsible for it."

The Brewers could at least feel a little better Thursday night as they avoided a double-digit losing streak.

"It's so easy to get negative in this game and stay negative, especially when you've been through what we've been through," Villanueva said. "It takes something a little extra inside to stay positive when things are going bad, but this team has stayed positive. We still believe we're a good team capable of winning a lot of games. It's only May. You can't give up yet and we're not giving up. We know we're a better team that what we've shown."

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While Tigers management won't admit it publicly, its intention going into the offseason was to retrench in 2010 and start building a team that could contend in 2011. After blowing a seven-game lead in September and a three-game lead in the final four days of the regular season, then losing a one-game playoff to the Twins for the American League Central title last year, the Tigers traded right-hander Edwin Jackson to the Diamondbacks and center fielder Curtis Granderson to the Yankees in a three-way deal at the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis.

Yet the Tigers are tied with the Twins for the division lead at 24-17. Two rookies are playing a major role, as outfielder Brennan Boesh has a .344 TAv in 81 plate appearances, and center fielder Austin Jackson, acquired from the Yankees in the big trade, has a .300 TAv in 180 plate appearances. The Tigers started an all-rookie outfield in Wednesday night's victory over the Athletics at the Coliseum, as Jackson was flanked by Casper Wells in left field and Boesch in right.

The Tigers have won even though a couple of rookies haven't panned out. Second baseman Scott Sizemore was optioned to Triple-A Toledo after posting a .223 TAv in 118 plate appearances. Left-handed reliever Daniel Schlereth, who came from the Diamondbacks in the trade, was expected to be a key part of the bullpen but failed to make the team in spring training and is pitching at Toledo.

"It's exciting," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said of his team's youth. "It creates enthusiasm on our club. It brings a certain hop in your step with those youngsters. It helps the veterans in that sense. The future is bright when you have those kids meshed in with our club. We've got a lot of young players coming up."

It remains to be seen if the kids can help get the Tigers to the postseason for the first time since they were the surprise AL pennant winners in 2006. The always-cautious Dombrowski isn't ready to proclaim his team pennant-worthy, but he is encouraged by what it has accomplished in the first quarter of the season.

"Overall, you have to be satisfied," Dombrowski said. "I'm satisfied with what's taken place. You'll always have good parts and then you have parts you need to add. So even if you have a club that's running on all cylinders, there are other areas that need to be addressed. But I think in our situation the positives outweigh the negatives."

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Commissioner Bud Selig reluctantly signed off on limited use of instant replay to review umpire's calls on home runs in 2008, and the system has worked flawlessly. The use of video has helped umpires get calls right and the reviews have been conducted in an expedient manner without greatly disrupting the flow of games. Yet the umpires did not take advantage of the technology during Wednesday night's game between the Rangers and Orioles at Rangers Ballpark. Their refusal to review a call cost Rangers left fielder Josh Hamilton a home run.

Hamilton hit a ball over the left-field wall in the fourth inning that should have tied the score at 2-2. Though the ball hit some rods between the video board in the wall and the stands then bounced up and back onto the field, second base umpire Doug Eddings ruled it a live ball. Hamilton wound up with a double and was left stranded.

Rangers manager Ron Washington came onto the field to ask Eddings for an explanation. Eddings said he saw the ball hit the padding on the outfield wall, which is in play, and then bounce back onto the field. Washington did request a review and Eddings did not ask the rest of the umpiring crew if they agreed with his ruling. However, crew chief Dana DeMuth admitted after watching a replay following the game that the umpires had erred and Hamilton should have been credited with a home run. Though it did not affect the outcome of the game as the Rangers won 4-3, DeMuth felt badly about not calling for a review.

"Just like a team's manager has a trust in their team, I have a trust in my umpire, and my umpire that was out on that call (Eddings) didn't feel there was any question in his mind," DeMuth said. "He felt 100 percent sure on it. He didn't come to me. To see (that Eddings missed the call) is very upsetting because this is a great tool that Major League Baseball has given me, has given crew chiefs, has given umpires. I can see that I did not use that tool. I didn't think there was any doubt in my partner's mind, and I've had this plenty of times before where we made the correct call and we used the tool and it showed we were correct.

"This, in my experience, is the first time me being a crew chief that obviously we made the wrong call. If he had any doubt in his mind, all he has to do is come to me and we're going to video. That's how sure he was on it. There's nobody on the field that could tell. Nobody came running to me. A couple of innings later there were a few players, even Baltimore players, that said it was a home run."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Outfielder Pat Burrell, now a free agent after being designated for assignment by the Rays and clearing waivers, is drawing interest from the Padres and Giants. … The Cubs are likely to sign reliever Bobby Howry, who was released by the Diamondbacks earlier in the week. … Mariners sources are adamant that designated hitter Ken Griffey Jr. will not be released under any circumstance, and Junior says he isn't ready to retire. … White Sox GM Ken Williams shot down speculation that the jobs of hitting coach Greg Walker's job or other members of the staff are in jeopardy. … Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said he is going to start monitoring Roy Halladay's pitch counts after the right-hander had a 132-pitch outing against the Pirates on Tuesday.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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