It was a sentence that most people figured Eric Wedge would never say at any point during the 2013 season.
And yet following a 3-2 win in extra innings to the Angels in Anaheim, the Mariners manager said this:
“We were planning on saving Medina to close, so we couldn’t go to him.”
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Medina? As in Yoervis Medina?
In a game against a team featuring Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo, Wedge was going to turn to a 24-year-old rookie, who at the time never registered a save in his brief big league career or pitched in a save situation in the big leagues, to close out the 10th inning of a game.
Yes, that’s what the Mariners bullpen has devolved into this season.
To Medina’s credit, he would notch that first big league save that night, retiring Pujols, Howie Kendrick and Mark Trumbo in order to do so. And he’s been a pleasant surprise this season for the Mariners since being called up in April.
“It’s a situation he hasn’t been in up here before, so he did a great job considering it’s the bottom half of the last inning and especially the hitters he was facing,” Wedge said.
Still, the fact that Medina is being used as the interim closer in the middle of June means something has gone very wrong with Seattle’s bullpen.
Between injuries, overuse and ineffectiveness, the Mariners reliever corps has turned into a minor debacle that has Wedge in a situational mess that he can’t get out of.
And yet, he doesn’t seem fazed by it.
“I’ve seen it too many times,” Wedge said. “I tried to explain it to everybody at spring training. This is who you break camp with, it’s not going to because of injury or performance related reasons.”
The Mariners opened the season with seven relievers – right-handers Carter Capps, Kameron Loe, Stephen Pryor and Tom Wilhelmsen and lefties Oliver Perez, Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge.
Going into today’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, only Capps, Wilhelmsen, Perez and Furbush remain. Luetge is in Triple A Tacoma, Pryor is on the 60-day disabled list with a torn latissmus dorsi and Loe after being let go by the Mariners and the Cubs is now pitching for the Braves’ Triple A affiliate in Gwinnett, Georgia.
Meanwhile, Medina and Danny Farquhar, who were both with Triple A Tacoma to start the season, and Blake Beavan, who started the season in the Mariners’ starting rotation, are now in the bullpen. Along the way Bobby LaFromboise and Hector Noesi (twice) made appearances in the bullpen.
“You can’t predict this game,” Wedge said. “You just can’t.”
One thing that Wedge couldn’t and didn’t want to predict was the fall of closer Tom Wilhelmsen.
The blown saves, the lost command and dwindling confidence of Wilhelmsen has been the main reason for the Mariners’ current predicament.
After saving 29 games in 2012 after Brandon League lost his closing job and was later traded, Wilhelmsen seemed poised for a huge season.
It started off that way.
In his first 17 appearances, Wilhelmsen was nearly flawless. He saved 11 games and allowed one run in 18 innings pitched. Opponents had just six hits in 65 plate appearances against him.
And then it all fell apart.
It started with a blown save in Cleveland where he dropped the final out of the game while covering first base. From there, things got worse. He blew another save in Minnesota, picked up a few shaky saves and then blew two more leads. He was finally removed from the closing role after a ghastly loss at Safeco Field when the Houston Astros when he gave up five runs on three hit with two walks in a 2/3 of an inning.
In the 11 appearances from Cleveland to Houston, Wilhelmsen gave up 11 earned runs on 11 hits with 10 walks and eight strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings for a 9.24 ERA.
Wedge had no choice but to try someone else in the closing role. Right now, he’s using Perez and Medina based on who the opposing team is sending to the plate in that last inning. Capps inability to get out left-handers consistently – they are hitting .341 with a 1.121 on-base plus slugging percentage against him has kept him out of that spot.
“One of the tough things of doing it this way is you have to have potentially one or multiple guys down there ready for that last inning,” Wedge said.
That means Capps, Farquhar, and Furbush and now Wilhelmsen all have to pitch set-up innings to get there.
This would have all been much easier if the hard-throwing Pryor would have been healthy. The big right-hander was pitching well in early April – seven scoreless innings in seven appearances – before he felt the tear under his throwing arm. He has now missed 61 games and likely won’t be back until after the all-star break.
A healthy-Pryor would have slid right into the closer’s role much the way Wilhelmsen did the same when Brandon League struggled last season.
Until Wilhelmsen regains the form that made him look like a certain all-star for the first month of the season, this is how Wedge and the Mariners will have to proceed in the near future.
Medina has been solid, but far from consistent. He’s got a live arm that features a 95-97 mph fastball and a good slider. But he’s got a bad habit of issuing early walks – 16 in 26 1/3 innings pitched.
Perez might be the best reliever on the team right now. He’s got a 0.98 ERA in 30 appearances. He hasn’t allowed in a run in his last 11 innings pitched (13 appearances). He’s good enough that he will likely have some trade value to teams like the Detroit Tigers.
But the Mariners’ bullpen becomes significantly better if Wilhelmsen is pitching well as the closer.
Wedge has tried to find spots for him to find success. But the command isn’t quiet yet there.
In three appearances since his demotion, Wilhelmsen still hasn’t looked consistently sharp. He’s pitched 3 1/3 innings, giving up three runs on five hits, including two homers, with two walks and three strikeouts.
But Wedge is still going to roll him out there in non-save situations. If he’s on the staff, he has to pitch.
“You have to use your guys in your bullpen,” Wedge said. “Tommy is a guy we’ve got to use, even though he’s in a different role. Otherwise you can’t be here, so that was the situation there.”
But Wedge believes he will figure it out. He’s steadfastly maintained that since the day he took the closing job away from him.
“You know what he’s capable of doing,” Wedge said. “You could make the argument that for the six weeks of the season he was the best closer in the league. So you know what they’re capable of doing, so he can get back there.”