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Fennelly: Rays bullpen pointed in wrong direction

By
Published:   |   Updated: May 24, 2013 at 09:58 AM

Should the Rays remove Fernando Rodney from the closer's role?

Yes
54%
No
46%

Total Votes: 274

Understand that he had nowhere to go but down.

But did he have to become a fanatic about it?

Fernando Rodney was that spectacular last season, unhittable, unreal, all of it. His historically tiny ERA and boundless joy kicked off a cult: bow, arrow, pull, release. Everyone still does it, and that goes for Rays teammates after they hit safely.

A drop-off was a mathematical certainty. It stands to reason: You can't be comeback player of the year twice in a row. But this is getting to be a bit much, especially with the Yankees hitting town.

Rodney Hood robbed from the Rays again Wednesday, another blown save, that long homer to Toronto's Jose Bautista, six days after Rodney walked the bases loaded, then a double to wipe out a win against the Red Sox.

After two blown saves all last season, Rodney is looking suspiciously like the Rodney who had a 4.29 career ERA when he arrived here, who sometimes couldn't find the plate. It's troubling news.

For these are wins the Rays mostly can't get back, even with Saturday's comeback at Baltimore. Tonight, Joe Maddon will say what he always says when the Yankees come in: These games aren't any more important than all the others.

Exactly — May matters as much as September. So what's happening now is large. Think blown leads and blown games don't take the front end off 90-win seasons?

I never thought I'd write this in my lifetime: The Rays are wasting this offense.

It's more than Rodney and his 5.40 ERA — nine times higher than last season. Rays pitching isn't close to what it was in 2012. The 24th-best ERA in baseball? The bullpen is an even paler imitation. It led the AL with a 2.88 ERA last season, opponents batting a measly .208 against it. The pen ERA this season stands at 4.82. These men are putting men on base at a gruesome clip. They can't find any consistency. That is death to baseball seasons.

It's more than Rodney. It's to the point where any bullpen move seems freighted with peril, not to be trusted, no right move, opening up Maddon for second-guessing, like: Why is Kyle Farnsworth, who is looking eerily lousy, even pitching to Joey Bats in the 10th on Wednesday?

But we return to Rodney, whose invincibility last season helped keep the Rays a factor even with Evan Longoria gone. That invincibility has vanished.

There was no sign of fade as Rodney mowed through the World Baseball Classic. But the current Rodney harkens to the man who misses plates too often. He walked just 15 batters in 74-plus innings last year. He has 17 walks in 18 innings this season.

The velocity seems to still be there (one Rodney pitch was clocked doing 100 mph in Toronto) and he had a five-out save Tuesday. But his inconsistency mirrors this bullpen's struggles. It could end up at the heart of this season. And don't look for big moves. These are the guys. The Rays will rise or fall with them.

No small part of this franchise's success and mystique since 2008 surrounds the bullpen — how the Rays somehow stay ahead of the game and regrow a new pen each season, searching high and sometimes very low to find the mix, knowing full well that bullpens, from year to year, are highly combustible.

The Rays hit it big in 2008, their breakout year, with Troy Percival and coming-out parties for Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell. When the pen slumped in 2009, so did the Rays. In 2010, there was the back-end wallop of Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano. In 2011, it was a reborn Farnsworth and Joel Peralta. Last season was Rodney, an ascending Jake McGee, and on and on.

It's true enough that the pen got off to a rocky start in 2012. It then rounded into magnificence and a mind-boggling Rodney. Rodney was unreal.

Now he's real.

Right now, the arrow is pointed down.

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