For a change, it wasn't the bullpen.
Randy Wolf earned his loss last night by giving up eight runs through four innings, a rare bad outing from a starting pitcher this season. In fact, the starting pitching (minus Wolf) has settled down nicely after stumbling in April.
But the bullpen ... that's another story.
In 2011, the bullpen was widely considered one of the Brewers' greatest strengths. It collectively posted a 3.32 ERA, led by Francisco Rodriguez (1.86) and John Axford (1.95). LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito, and Kameron Loe all had sub-4.00 ERAs. In general, if the starting pitching was able to pitch through six with a lead, you felt pretty good about the Brewers' chances of winning.
Not so in 2012. Relievers have been charged with 19 losses this season. To put that in perspective, the bullpen accumulated only 23 losses over all of 2011. No reliever has a sub-3.00 ERA, and only three relievers (Loe, Veras, and just barely K-Rod) are below 4.00. In short, the bullpen has turned a complete 180 degrees. What was the team's greatest strength in 2011 has become its greatest liability in 2012.
The house of cards was probably destined to topple at some point. Doug Melvin's failure to bring back either Hawkins or Saito meant that other arms were going to have to cover some important innings. To help bridge this gap, Melvin flipped Casey McGehee for the hard-throwing Jose Veras. But velocity often comes at a price. In 2009 and 2010, Veras walked more than 5 batters per nine innings, as sure a sign of control issues as any. He's lived up to that reputation in 2012 with a 6.19(!) BB/9. In just 33 innings, Veras has walked 23 batters, third most among major-league relievers.
Once seemingly invulnerable relievers have come back to earth, too. Even on their best days in 2011, Axford and K-Rod rarely tossed clean 1-2-3 innings. Axford appears to have been the beneficiary of a little luck and a strand rate well above his career norm. K-Rod simply induced a greater percentage of ground balls than at any other point in his career and struck out a small army over the second half. Make no mistake; Axford and Rodriguez combined to do some amazing things last year. But there was really no reason for anyone to expect either of them to replicate those feats in 2012.
What this suggests is that the line between team success and failure in baseball might be far thinner than we thought. In my gut, I know the Brewers are not a 34-42 team, just as I was skeptical last year that they should have won 96 games. In essence, everything went right for the 2011 Brewers; very little is going right in 2012, and those things that are consistently good (like starting pitching) have been eclipsed by other failures. The extreme shift in luck between 2011 and 2012 might seem depressing-especially when the more successful season comes first-but you know what? I'd rather pile all of the breaks into one successful season than spread them out over two and never see the Brewers reach the NLCS.
So I'm ready to just kick back and appreciate some baseball. Injury and ineffectiveness have combined to eradicate whatever expectations I had for this team going forward, and that alone allows more room to appreciate what we do have. The Brewers are a good enough team that we're going to see a lot of close ball games and some very good starting pitching. Maybe some of those feel-good vibes from Lebowski Fest are still hanging around Lake Michigan, but it's probably time to stop stressing about whether the team can put together a good run before the trade deadline and just enjoy summer in Milwaukee and Bob Uecker on the radio. This is, after all, entertainment, and at least the 2012 season is providing plenty of that.