Maybe, just maybe, this will turn out to be a significant moment in the history of baseball roster construction:
That’s Kyle Lohse striking out against Heath Bell in the 11th inning to end yesterday’s Diamondbacks-Brewers game. Kyle Lohse, the pitcher, striking out to end the game. With the Brewers down by one run. And the tying run on third. Yes, it sort of seems like anyone can hit Heath Bell, but sending a pitcher to the plate is pushing it. “This is not the situation you want to have here,” said Brewers play-by-play man Brian Anderson. No kidding.
If it seems strange that Kyle Lohse was allowed to make the last out with Carlos Gomez 90 feet from home plate…well, it was strange. Very strange.
The last time a pitcher made the final out of a regular-season game with the tying run in scoring position was July 18, 2007, when Kyle Davies pinch-hit for Jose Ascanio in the Braves’ 5-4 loss to the Reds. That was in the 15th inning, so it was a little easier to understand. The Braves had already used 20 players, including four pinch-hitters, in the game.
Before that, the last time was April 21, 1996, when Braves pitcher Tom Thobe (who pitched all of 9 1/3 innings in the majors) hit for himself and grounded out to end the game after allowing the Padres to score the winning run in the top half of the inning. That was another 15-inning game, in which the Braves used five pinch-hitters and 21 players—everyone but starting pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Jason Schmidt.
The “tying run in scoring position, last out made by the pitcher” scenario occurred only one other time in the 1990s, once in the 1980s, and three times in the 1970s. It happened a couple times a year in the 1950s, when pitchers weren’t quite as bad at batting relative to position players, but it’s a real rarity now (as it should be), reserved only for the most extreme of extra-inning, all-hands-on-deck affairs. (You can see the complete list of games here. To be fair, if a pitcher was put in the position Lohse was and came through, that game wouldn’t show up in these results. That may have happened once or twice.)
So how did it happen to the Brewers? Well, Milwaukee started out short-handed: Ryan Braun was benched, but not disabled, with a stiff neck that prevented him from swinging. Shortstop Jean Segura had to leave the game in the third after being taken out by a sliding Gerardo Parra. And the game went 11 innings, so the Brewers had already used Khris Davis and Josh Prince to pinch-hit.
But there’s another obvious factor to blame for Milwaukee’s short bench: the Brewers’ eight-man bullpen. With the game on the line and the pitcher’s spot up, Milwaukee was out of position players. But Alfredo Figaro, Brandon Kintzler, and Chris Narveson were still sitting in the bullpen, waiting for their turn to pitch. They’re still waiting.
To start a season, this is tough. You don’t expect to have this many injuries early, and when you do, it’s hard to figure out how you cover everything.
Injuries make a manager’s (and a general manager’s) life more difficult, but there is a pretty simple solution, at least in terms of making sure you have enough warm bodies on your bench: call up a position player. The replacement player will probably play like one, but he’ll still be a better batter than Kyle Lohse. Granted, the Brewers already did that on Saturday, when they called up Prince to replace the disabled Aramis Ramirez. And the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate, the Nashville Sounds, wasn’t exactly a hotbed of baseball talent to begin with. (The Brewers, remember, ranked 27th in our recent organizational rankings.)
But Milwaukee had options. With Mat Gamel out for the season, Ramirez out for 15 days, and Alex Gonzalez filling in at third, Yuniesky Betancourt is starting games at first base, which is a thing that should never be. Why not call up fringy power prospect Hunter Morris, last year’s Southern League MVP, to play first until Ramirez returns? Sure, that would leave the Sounds temporarily without a first baseman, but better the Sounds be without one than the Brewers.
Even if it makes sense for the Brewers to keep Braun on the active roster—and it does, if he’ll be back in a lot less than 15 days—there was no need for Milwaukee to play that short-handed. What’s more important, being able to fill out a lineup if someone goes down and a game goes to extras, or having a third lefty in the bullpen? Brewers starters haven’t pitched well this season, but they’ve all lasted at least five innings, so it’s not as if the bullpen was depleted by a disaster start or a series of extra-inning games.
Here’s what Roenicke said before the game about going back to a five-man bench:
We've talked about it. Right now, we're not looking at doing that. We've talked about a game plan of about where we think we need to be in trying to get back to a five-man bench. But there's too many other things going on to worry about a five-man bench right now, with just trying to put together a lineup like this and get Brauny back and get some kind of lineup where we feel that we can be consistent with.
I’d argue that it’s precisely when you’re struggling to fill out a lineup that you need a full bench the most. It might be a bad bench, but it would be better than a bloated bullpen.
Our front office was so proactive in the relationship we had that they trusted what we were saying. We could be in Seattle, and we played a 12- or 13-inning game, we’ve got a day game the next day then we’re coming back to the East Coast, and we’re really strapped. Most places will go, ‘Well, just try to get through tomorrow, and we’ll do something, we’ll see where we are back in Baltimore.’ They say, ‘No, we’re going to send somebody from Norfolk to Seattle.’ And that guy may not pitch, but what it allows you to do is put your best foot forward to win that game, that night.
Kyle Lohse was not the Brewers' best foot. The Orioles got lucky last year, yes, but they also came prepared to play, treating their Triple-A roster as an extension of their 25-man and making an unparalleled amount of moves in an effort to keep their bench and bullpen fully stocked. Teams on the bubble, like the Brewers, can’t give games away by relying on a three-man bench and banking on it not coming back to bite them. The eight-man bullpen bit them last night. We’ll see if Milwaukee—and the rest of the league—learns its lesson.