Brian Wilson and the fickle nature of relief

March, 30, 2014
Mar 30
9:57
PM PT
SAN DIEGO -- Somebody asked Brian Wilson Sunday night whether he could just chalk his poor outing up to the unpredictability of the game he plays.

"I’m not particularly used to having 'one of those nights,'" Wilson said. "Normally, it might have something to do with not making proper pitches. Tonight was about not being able to get ahead in the count, and they took advantage of it. Just forgive and forget."

The Dodgers took a stab in the dark when they signed Wilson for $1 million to pitch for them near the end of last August. He was coming off his second Tommy John surgery, and it was entirely possible they’d be paying him without ever seeing him throw a major league pitch. They had to wait for weeks while he built up his arm strength in the minor leagues.

[+] EnlargeBrian Wilson
AP Photo/Gregory BullIffy command, plus a misplayed tapper in front of the mound, spelled Wilson's demise Sunday night.
What they got was some of the most dominant relief in baseball in September and October.

In 18 games, Wilson didn’t allow more than one run in any outing. By late September, he was touching 96 mph with his fastball, not far from where he had worked as the San Francisco Giants closer. He tacked on six scoreless innings in the playoffs.

The Dodgers liked that so well, they signed Wilson to a one-year, $10 million contract extension, good money even for a closer. Now, two appearances into 2014, Wilson has already cost the Dodgers a game. His third pitch of Sunday’s game, an 87 mph cutter that hung over the plate, tied it. Pinch hitter Seth Smith sent it over the right-field wall. Wilson took the loss after allowing three runs to score in the sloppy eighth inning of the San Diego Padres’ 3-1 win at Petco Park.

That’s the problem with relief pitching: You just never know what you’re going to get, not only game-to-game, but year-to-year.

The Dodgers are pretty sure they’ve assembled a bullpen of granite. They spent like a team that wasn’t willing to take any chances when their starters leave games. The bullpen was general manager Ned Colletti’s primary focus this winter, and he not only signed Wilson to get the ball to closer Kenley Jansen, he brought in Chris Perez, Jamey Wright and Paul Maholm as well. He brought back solid lefty J.P. Howell.

The 13 relief pitchers on the Dodgers roster are earning $32.4 million collectively, which is about $13 million less than the Houston Astros’ entire payroll. So far, the Dodgers' bullpen has a 6.92 ERA and has walked nine batters in three games.

None of which is to suggest that relief won’t be a strength for this team all season long, only that you never really can know what you’ll get.

Wilson’s fastball topped out at 91 mph Sunday, well down from what he normally works with. That could be a matter of the fact he was pitching in March in heavy, cool air. But if you’re prone to worry, you connect it with the fact that Wilson was scratched from one of his minor league outings -- for undisclosed reasons -- and you wonder whether he might be ailing in some way.

"I don’t really worry about velocity," Wilson said.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly also dismissed any worries about velocity and said it seemed like Wilson simply couldn’t hit the spots he normally does.

"He’s always on the edge and he’s always painting," Mattingly said. "Tonight, it seemed like he must have been missing that edge out there. He wasn’t as sharp as we’re used to him being."

Everything went pretty much according to the formula Sunday night until Wilson got the ball. Hyun-Jin Ryu was just as dominant as Clayton Kershaw likely would have been had Kershaw not been scratched (and subsequently put on the disabled list) because of a bad back. Ryu gave a perfectly reasonable explanation for why Mattingly pulled him after the seventh though he had thrown just 88 pitches.

"I noticed in the seventh inning that my balls were slowing down a little bit and I was getting a little tired, so I went up to Donnie and told him that it’s probably better that I come out of the game," Ryu said through an interpreter. "Obviously, we trust our bullpen all the time."

The Dodgers will continue to stick with the plan. They’ll continue to trust Wilson and their other key relievers, but -- as always -- they’ll be doing a lot more hoping than knowing.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.312 13 59 69
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 17
RBIA. Gonzalez 83
RY. Puig 69
OPSY. Puig .905
WC. Kershaw 14
ERAC. Kershaw 1.86
SOC. Kershaw 174