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The mighty 'pen

6/17/2010

Jonny Venters doesn't yet have a song that is played when Braves manager Bobby Cox summons him into a game. "I don't know if rookies can pick their own music," Venters said the other day.

But if Venters keeps pitching the way he has at the outset of this season, fans at Turner Field will be hearing this song: "Fishin' in the Dark" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. "I like country," Venters said.

And undoubtedly, the Braves like what they've gotten out of the left-hander, who had stalled in their farm system in recent years. Venters had always been a starter, and in the midst of a season in which he was 4-7 with a 5.62 ERA, he mentioned to Derek Botelho, the pitching coach at Triple-A Gwinnett, that maybe he would be better working out of the bullpen.

He made one start for Gwinnett this season before being called up to pitch out of the Braves' bullpen -- and he has thrived. It took him a few games to get the hang of warming up for an appearance -- before his first appearance, he threw about 30 pitches, prompting other Atlanta relievers to tell him he needed to take it easy -- but Venters likes the rhythm of a bullpen role. He likes coming to the park daily knowing that there's a chance he'll get into the game. He likes the adrenaline rush when he steps out of the 'pen onto the field.

And he's throwing very well. "To me, he looks like someone who could close games for them in the future," one rival evaluator said. "I don't know if Billy Wagner is serious about retiring after this year, but Venters could be a guy who could move into that role. You don't see a lot of left-handers with that kind of sink on their fastball."

Says Venters: "I think when I was a starter, I would get tired and I would lose the strike zone. I would be OK the first time through the strike zone, and then I'd start to have trouble."

Now he faces only a handful of hitters, one time. Venters has walked 17 in 29 innings but has allowed only 19 hits and has struck out 32. He hasn't surrendered a home run yet this season, and left-handers are just 5-for-37 against him, which is a big deal in a division that has Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Ike Davis.

Some other National League middle relievers who are doing great work this season:

2. Luke Gregerson, Padres: He has been the most efficient reliever in the majors this year, allowing only 14 hits and two walks in 34.1 innings -- with 41 strikeouts. Rival evaluators note that he is one of the pitchers in the majors who can command his slider on both sides of the strike zone.

Gregerson says that when he was in the minors, in the Cardinals' farm system, he asked Josh Kinney about the difference between facing the hitters in the majors and minors. Kinney explained that while hitters in the minors would continually make the same mistakes -- swinging at pitches out of the strike zone in the same spot -- hitters in the majors would quickly learn to lay off a tough slider thrown off the plate, in the same area. "He said: 'To be honest, if you throw [off-speed pitches] under the zone, they'll swing at them. If you throw them out of the zone, they'll take them.'"

Gregerson -- a former third baseman who had been a closer in high school but never really pitched consistently until he was in college -- started to command his slider in different parts of the strike zone. Inside, outside, up, down, whatever he needed. He had learned how to throw a slider while pitching in high school, teaching himself the grip that he still uses today. "I have no problem throwing it for a strike," he said.

Setup men and middle relievers are only occasionally picked for the All-Star team, but Gregerson has a heck of a case: He easily ranks first in WHIP among all pitchers with at least 20 innings, at 0.47, and he ranks 23rd in strikeouts per nine innings.

3. Arthur Rhodes, Reds: The ol' lefty has allowed one run in 28 innings, with 13 holds and 26 strikeouts. He has surrendered one home run, which means that in facing about 100 hitters this season, all the run-scoring against him has happened on one swing.

I was covering the Orioles when manager Davey Johnson shifted Rhodes from starting pitcher to reliever in 1996, and I recall how much he seemed to enjoy the switch right after it was made. He recently surpassed 800 appearances for his career.

4. Joe Beimel, Rockies. He's allowed just 13 hits and five walks in 22.1 innings so far this season.

5. Tyler Clippard, Nationals. He has been leaned on heavily, as Washington has struggled to get innings out of their rotation, and right now he's on a pace to throw 101 innings this season -- but overall, he has been excellent, a staff savior for the Nats.

Around the league

Pedro Alvarez struggled at the outset of last season in the minors. After a couple of months, he began to focus on hitting the ball through the middle, and he turned around his performance.

And this is exactly what happened with Alvarez this season, Pirates GM Neal Huntington said Wednesday. A few weeks ago, Alvarez began looking to take the ball through the middle of the field, and immediately, he began hitting in a way that the Pirates think he can hit. Alvarez is so strong, Huntington said, that if he looks merely to hit the ball up the middle, the power will come; there is no need for him to muscle up on the ball. And Alvarez's ability to make that adjustment is why he put himself in position to get called up.

Pirates president Frank Coonelly said, "He wants to be a great player -- not just a good player, but a great player."

Alvarez batted sixth in the lineup Wednesday, and the Pirates hope that he does not feel as if he's being brought in to turn around a slumping team; they just want him to focus on what he needs to do to be great.

And Alvarez is definitely not walking into an ideal situation: The Pirates dropped their 10th straight on Wednesday and made six errors along the way, Dejan Kovacevic writes. Some fans came to see Alvarez, writes Bill Brink.

To make room for Alvarez, the Pirates designated their highest-paid player for assignment -- Aki Iwamura. The Pirates will try to trade Iwamura, with the understanding that they would have to eat a lot of money in the deal. But it's also possible that Iwamura will stay with the Pirates in Triple-A, if he accepts the assignment.

• If you polled some of the scouts who do the divisional coverage and ask them which player they respect the most, a lot of votes would go to Chase Utley, because the scouts are convinced that he plays through injuries as much as anybody in the game -- without complaining, without talking about his ailments, without making excuses.

And right now, a lot of those evaluators are convinced that he is not close to 100 percent physically.

Two years ago, one scout noticed in June that Utley did not seem right, and at season's end, Utley had hip surgery. And the same scout is seeing a lot of the same things this season.

"The telltale sign for me is how he is not getting to pitches in the lower half of the strike zone, which makes me wonder if his [perceived injury] might be affecting his balance at the plate," the scout said. "He's a guy who has always thrived on balls in the lower half of the strike zone -- he murders them -- and he's just not getting to them these days."

Said a rival executive: "He just does not look right to me at all."

There is some good news for the Phillies: Jimmy Rollins could be back in the Phillies' lineup this weekend.

Utley arranged his stuff carefully before Wednesday's game, writes Matt Gelb.

Stephen Strasburg likes the food in the big leagues, writes Adam Kilgore. Given his stature in the game and the fact that just about everyone has taken the time to see him pitch in the big leagues, his game is being dissected by evaluators, and there is one overwhelmingly popular sentiment right now among folks with other teams: He needs to use both of his fastballs more.

"As refined as he is, I wonder if he really understands how tough his four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball are, when used together," one scout said. "He's throwing a lot of secondary stuff [his curve and his changeup] when he could probably get a lot of pop flies and weak grounders with his fastball."

The Nationals are going to have a big crowd again Friday, although the money flying around for the tickets hasn't been nearly as thick as it was for his debut, according to Chris Matcovich of Seatgeek.com. He reports that the average ticket price for the Nats on the season is $51.46. For Stephen Strasburg's first start against Pittsburgh, that figure jumped to $103.28. Now, for his next home start, against the White Sox, the average price has fallen to $56.68, just a slight bump over any normal game.

Jamie Moyer walked off the mound in Fenway Park last week after taking an absolute baseball beating -- and then on Wednesday, he bounced back, again, and set a record: He's the oldest pitcher to beat the Yankees:

Jamie Moyer: 47 years, 210 days (2010)

Phil Niekro: 47-122 (1986)

Phil Niekro: 47-16 (1986)

Jack Quinn: 46-363 (1930)

Jack Quinn: 46-320 (1930)

Moyer has 265 career wins. Incredible.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Orioles will formally interview Buck Showalter next week. It'll be interesting to see what Showalter wants in his next job, and whether he will take this job if it is offered to him.

2. Felix Doubront will be called up to take Daisuke Matsuzaka's spot in the Boston rotation, Brian MacPherson writes.

3. Within this notebook, there is word that Matt Joyce is killing the ball in Triple-A and waiting for his next shot at the big leagues. The Rays are not wed to Hank Blalock yet -- with a pinch-hit single Wednesday, he increased his on-base percentage to .316 and his slugging percentage to .358 -- so you do wonder whether the Rays might consider Joyce over Blalock at some point.

4. Mark Mulder is filling his time with golf rather than baseball, Tony Paul writes.

5. Travis Hafner is about to get a lot of days off.

6. Chipper Jones is not ready to talk about the timing of his retirement.

7. Edgar Renteria is back, but he'll be on the bench at the outset.

8. Conor Jackson batted leadoff in his first game with Oakland, Joe Stiglich writes.

9. Yorvit Torrealba was suspended for three games, and he had harsh words about the umpire involved. Reading between the lines of this story, you wonder whether the Padres' pitchers would prefer that Torrealba keep his feelings to himself.

10. Jim Hendry has no plans to fire Lou Piniella, Paul Sullivan writes.

11. Both the White Sox and the Cubs need to start thinking big-picture with their management teams, writes Phil Rogers.

12. Ken Macha used Prince Fielder at DH.

13. Ruben Amaro met with the Phillies staff, writes Matt Gelb.

Dings and dents

1. A top Red Sox prospect has a fracture in his hand, according to WEEI.com.

2. Erik Bedard is making progress.

3. Brandon Webb continues to be encouraged by his bullpen work, as mentioned within this notebook. He could be a wild card in the trade market, although his margin for error is very slight at this point. If he has any kind of setback, he probably won't have enough time to demonstrate progress to teams that might be interested.

4. The Angels might have to go looking for a shortstop, writes Bill Shaikin. Adam Everett could be a good fit.

5. Jake Peavy has an aching shoulder, writes Mark Gonzales.

6. Luke Hochevar landed on the disabled list with an elbow strain.

7. Questions about A-Rod's health arose with two outs in the ninth Wednesday.

Wednesday's games

1. Clayton Kershaw is pitching like a No. 1, writes Joe Kay. Why Kershaw won, from Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information: He had improved control -- Kershaw threw 72 percent of his pitches for strikes and only walked one, both season-bests. It's only the fourth start of his career in which he lasted at least seven innings and walked one or fewer. He worked up in the zone -- 53 percent of Kershaw's pitches were in the upper third of the strike zone, about double the MLB average of 27 percent. Despite that, Reds hitters were just 1-for-13 in this location. (MLB average is .264.)

2. Michael Young delivered for the Rangers, again, Jeff Wilson writes.

3. An incorrect call hurt the Rays in a big way, writes Joe Smith. I watched a lot of this game, and this was unquestionably a turning point in the game.

4. Tommy Hanson was terrific for the Braves, Carroll Rogers writes.

5. Orioles hitters racked up 15 strikeouts, writes Jeff Zrebiec.

6. Jon Lester was The Man for the Red Sox. He racked up his 50th career win. Check out the list of pitchers with the highest win percentage at the time of their 50th win in the expansion era (losses in parentheses):

Dwight Gooden: .758 (16)

Tim Hudson: .746 (17)

Jon Lester: .735 (18)

Chien-Ming Wang: .735 (18)

Barry Zito: .735 (18)

Ron Guidry .735 (18)

7. The Nationals are in a serious funk right now, writes Adam Kilgore.

8. The Marlins got shut down again. Florida has been losing a lot lately, and inevitably, the status of manager Fredi Gonzalez is going to come up again -- and again, it would not be a surprise if Bobby Valentine's name surfaces in this conversation, if and when the Marlins decide to make a change.

9. Brennan Boesch had another good game, as did Justin Verlander. How Verlander won: The Nationals hit .063 with two strikes in the count (.462 without two strikes in the count). He had his second start this season with no walks. He generated the second most swings and misses in any start this season (13).

10. Mitch Talbot got knocked around, Paul Hoynes writes.

11. The Reds got pummeled again, writes Tom Groeschen, and a couple of Cincinnati players got ejected.

12. Scott Baker did the heavy lifting for the Twins, Joe Christensen writes. How Baker dominated the Rockies: He had a career-high 12 strikeouts. Baker kept hitters off-balance with two strikes, mixing up pitch type and location. He had five strikeouts on his fastball, five on his slider and two on his changeup -- the only two he threw with two strikes. Four strikeouts were up in the zone, two over the middle and six came down in the zone. Only one of his 12 strikeouts was called. He had exceptional control -- Baker threw 76 percent of his pitches for strikes and 63 percent were deemed in the strike zone -- both well above the MLB averages of (62 and 51 percent, respectively). Despite being all over the plate, he generated 20 swings and misses, also a career-best. He got ahead of hitters: Baker had 13 0-1 counts that were not put in play. Of those 13, 11 became 0-2 (85 percent; MLB average is 47 percent). Rockies hitters finished just 1-for-19 with two strikes.

13. Roy Oswalt lifted the Astros.

14. The Rockies got shut down, again.

15. Jason Vargas provided a Band-Aid for the Mariners, writes Nate Latsch.

16. The D-backs lost on the road, again, writes Nick Piecoro.

17. Tim Lincecum won Thursday, Rusty Simmons writes. I watched a lot of this, and he had a really good curveball.

18. Ricky Romero was outstanding, again, writes Bob Elliott. John Buck blasted another homer, a long way.

19. Kevin Correia had a tough game.

20. Joel Pineiro won with the help of a makeshift infield.

21. Carlos Quentin had a good day, and Ozzie Guillen hopes this leads to a breakout for the right fielder.

22. The Cardinals' offense had a tough day.

23. The Mets continue to be on a serious roll, David Waldstein writes. I wrote this piece about the Mets on the site today.

The patience index

Other stuff

• At a time when everybody is wondering whether Manny Ramirez is going to get booed in Boston, he isn't talking, writes Stan Grossfeld.

• The Orioles' young players have not gotten it done, writes Peter Schmuck. A rival executive was preparing himself for possible trade conversations with the Orioles and noted this: There is not a lot of depth in the O's farm system behind the current wave of young players in the big leagues. If he's right, that means the development of Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Jake Arrieta, etc. could be even more important than we thought to the franchise, because they might not be operating with a lot of margin for error.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is working to overcome the yips, writes Tom D'Angelo.

Brendan Harris has done little for the Twins, writes Patrick Reusse.

• Oakland's Jerry Blevins has issues with something that Carlos Zambrano said.

A.J. Burnett is baseball's biggest tease, writes John Harper.

• The Rangers' bullpen has been working very hard.

• The proposed aquarium in Florida has drawn the attention of an animal-rights group.

And today will be better than yesterday.