It's been mostly smiles for Joe Nelson, but not so much last night (Photo by: SRQman)
Joe Nelson had a bad night. Seeing as how Nelson has been one of our best relief pitchers, I'm willing to leave it at just that; a bad night. After all, as much as we are using certain relievers, we can't expect these guys to be great every time out. Just look at J.P. Howell vs. Kevin Youkilis. Howell is the guy you want on the mound in a close game, but it didn't end well. Hopefully that's the case with Nelson last night and not a sign of something worse.
Skimming through some stats, I couldn't help but notice some the Rays relievers are on pace to throw a lot more innings than expected. Guys like Dan Wheeler, Troy Percival and Grant Balfour are right on pace as far as innings, but for Nelson and a guy like Lance Cormier, some relievers are going to need some relief themselves.
As President of the Lance Cormier fan club, I've definitely been pleased with the 2.25 ERA/3.38 FIP performance so far. However, after the first month I didn't think Cormier would have almost as many innings pitched (20) as Andy Sonnanstine and Jeff Niemann (25). Cormier is a nice middle reliever, but he is on pace for 136 innings and even I don't want to see Lance that much.
Joe Nelson has a great back story and finally had a career year in 2008 with the Marlins. Until last night, Nelson has been very good for the Rays. He has the second highest K/9 in the pen and after yesterday's game he has thrown the second most relief innings on the Rays. During his breakthrough season in 2008, he threw a career high 54 innings for the Marlins. At this rate, he will top that mark by more than 20 innings as his current pace puts him at 78 innings.
There are a few things at work here. First, the Rays starters have to do a better job of going deeper into the game. This isn't a problem for James Shields, and Matt Garza has done a better job this year of going later into games, but the other three starters need to pick it up a bit. Scott Kazmir is Scott Kazmir and I don't think he'll ever be that guy you can consistently count on for seven innings a night, but more outings like last night (minus result) would help. In Andy Sonnanstine's case it really isn't Sonny's fault. Joe Maddon seems to have a quick hook on Sonny regardless of the situation. I don't know what more he can do except he less hittable. With Jeff Niemann it's a bit of a different story. Niemann just looks gassed by the fifth inning and has just one start in which he has completed the sixth inning(sounds like a candidate for a relief role). This type of performance effects Cormier and Nelson the most, which brings me to my next point.
As much as Joe Maddon would like us to believe the bullpen is "amorphous", it's really not. Hate it or love it, but Troy Percival is the closer. Dan Wheeler is his primary set up man and on most nights Brian Shouse should be your lefty specialist. J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour are your late inning guys, who I guess are pretty amorphous as they don't have definite roles, which leaves Nelson and Cormier as your mop-up/long relievers. Now both have pitched better than your average mop-up man, but the way the bullpen is constructed, they are the ones who will be placed in these roles most often.
With an impending David Price call-up and a decision on Jason Isringhausen in the next few weeks, a lot can change in the construction of the bullpen. In the interim, however, better starting pitching and a better Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler could go along way in providing relief to Lance Cormier and Joe Nelson.