Brewers 'pen wearing thin while awaiting key returns from IL

July 10th, 2024

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers starter Colin Rea was cruising until he suddenly wasn’t in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s 12-2 loss to the Pirates at American Family Field, and that meant another call to a bullpen beginning to show some signs of wear.

Bryse Wilson was greeted by Joey Bart’s grand slam to cap Pittsburgh’s six-run sixth inning, Hoby Milner allowed a homer to old friend Rowdy Tellez in the seventh and Joel Payamps gave up two more homers in the eighth -- making it a Major League-leading 11 home runs off Brewers relievers in their first eight games of July -- before first baseman Jake Bauers pitched the ninth inning of what had become a blowout.

“We haven’t had one of those games in a while, especially at home,” said Brewers manager Pat Murphy. “I’ve been bragging to everyone about being in 85 of 90 games, you know? But credit to the Pirates. They did a great job and took us out of it.”

The cost of playing so many close games has been shouldered by the bullpen, which was called upon again Tuesday after Rea, who ended the fifth inning having allowed only one hit -- Bryan Reynolds’ third-inning two-run homer -- suddenly yielded five straight hits to begin the sixth. Only the Giants have asked for more innings from relievers than the Brewers, though the totals are skewed by the occasional use of “openers.” Even with that factored in, Milwaukee relievers have pitched a lot.

For most of the year, they have answered the call. Going into this series, Brewers relievers had combined for a 3.29 ERA, third-best in the Majors. Their 1.21 WHIP was eighth-best.

Those numbers, and the workloads, have been going up.

“Certainly our bullpen is beat up a little bit,” Murphy said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys on the shelf, and we’ve had that all year. Guys just have to be a little more consistent. The roles are kind of jumbled because there are so many injuries.

“I’d like to give them all set roles. ‘You’re going to pitch the ninth. You’re going to pitch the eighth. You’re going to pitch against righties in the sixth and the seventh, and you’re going to pitch against lefties. It was a little easier earlier, but right now, we’re going through a rough one.”

Fortunately for the Brewers, a couple of key arms are on the way.

Closer Devin Williams, the reigning National League Reliever of the Year, threw 25-30 pitches to Bauers and Andruw Monasterio in a live batting practice session on Tuesday afternoon, marking the first time Williams saw hitters since going down in Spring Training with stress fractures in his back. Barring a setback, the next step for Williams could be a Minor League rehabilitation assignment, keeping him on track to be back with the Brewers by the end of July.

"The changeup is still elite, and then he was running a little cutter in to keep you off the fastball,” Bauers said afterward. “The stuff is there, for sure."

Murphy called the session “encouraging,” and said the team would discuss next steps with Williams on Wednesday.

“We want to be smart,” Murphy said.

The club is equally encouraged by left-hander Jared Koenig, one of the team’s biggest early-season surprises before he went down late last month with a forearm injury. He reported turning a corner in his recovery while the Brewers were away on their last road trip, and expects to throw off a mound on Thursday.

If that goes well, Koenig should be ready to pitch in games immediately following the All-Star break. If there is a rehab assignment, it would be brief.

There was expected to be a third name on the list of comeback candidates, but that was before left-hander DL Hall was struck by a comebacker in the third inning of what was supposed to be his final rehab start for Triple-A Nashville on Tuesday. Hall, who hasn’t pitched in the Majors since landing on the IL with a left knee sprain in April, threw 54 pitches for six outs before getting struck on his pitching forearm by an infield hit and leaving the game.

Brewers GM Matt Arnold said Hall was still being evaluated on Tuesday night, but there were no early indications of a fracture.

While those pitchers continue their comebacks, the Brewers’ healthy arms have five more games to go before a well-earned All-Star break.

“This is when you have to reach down, hang on and do whatever you can do to stay strong and play good baseball pitch to pitch,” Murphy said.