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08/09/12 2:00 PM ET
Bullpen struggles create chances for young talent
By Jeremy Warnemuende / MLB.com
MILWAUKEE -- To Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, it doesn't make much sense. The second-year skipper doesn't understand how it took 10 years for Jim Henderson -- a 29-year-old right-handed reliever -- to get his first shot in the Majors. That's exactly what happened, though, and Henderson has spent the past two weeks making the most of his first opportunity, allowing just one run in eight appearances for a 1.29 ERA. "I don't get it. I really have no idea," Roenicke said. "You can't have this stuff and pitch in the Minor Leagues. Your numbers would be ridiculous." In 35 games with Triple-A Nashville before getting called up, Henderson's numbers were solid. He registered 15 saves, and owned a 1.69 ERA with 56 strikeouts. But if the Brewers' season had gone as planned, Henderson likely wouldn't be in the position he is today. The same holds true for fellow reliever Mike McClendon and newly appointed bullpen coach Lee Tunnel, who -- along with Henderson -- have brought some fresh faces to Milwaukee's staff. In a campaign that hasn't lived up to expectations, the Brewers' bullpen has been one of the worst offenders, particularly John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez. Axford, who was 46-for-48 in save opportunities last season, has blown seven saves this year. And Rodriguez, who briefly replaced Axford as closer, has a 5.48 ERA to go with his six blown saves, causing the Crew to continue without defined roles in its bullpen. All of that has opened the door for young -- or at least inexperienced -- pitchers to make their mark. "These guys are so good, it's hard to watch them struggle," Henderson said. "It's not a situation that you wish for, but it is an opportunity for me the next two months, and hopefully I can prove that I belong here." An opportunity to see young players has been one of the silver linings in a season that has left Milwaukee 14 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central with 52 games to play. For guys such as Henderson, the chance for extended time in the Major Leagues is much appreciated after a decade of uncertainty in the Minors. Drafted by the Expos in 2003, the Canadian native eventually found himself with the Cubs organization. After a successful '07 season, Henderson needed surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and other problems in his throwing shoulder. The Cubs then let him go, and Milwaukee came calling. But the only opening for him was with Class A Wisconsin, a level Henderson thought he had moved beyond. "That was the biggest part mentally to get through," Henderson said. "But I was pitching well at the time. I guess it would have been a different story if I was struggling." In the following years, Henderson worked his strength back up, and he now throws a fastball that can touch 97 mph, which is the highest velocity he said he's ever had in his career. Without much of a breaking ball before this season, Roenicke said, Henderson now also throws a slider and a sinker. Tunnel, who took over as bullpen coach after Stan Kyles was relieved of his duties on July 30, was previously the Minor League pitching coordinator for the Brewers for three-plus years, and he worked with Henderson a great deal during that time. "He would have spells where he was really good," Tunnel said. "But for him, it was a matter of figuring out how to stay fresh, and it's a process after you have surgery to be able to do that. This is the year that he's really figured that out." For Henderson, Tunnel's familiar presence has helped him feel comfortable, as it has for most of the Brewers' relievers. Tunnel said that between his time with Milwaukee and his nine years with the Rangers organization, he has previously worked with everyone in the Brewers' bullpen other than Rodriguez and Livan Hernandez. Axford, who has pitched well in his past two outings, said Tunnel immediately began helping him with things they had worked on in the past. Tunnel also has created a bridge between the new pitchers in the bullpen and those who have been around for a while. And despite their struggles, the veterans have done their part to help what could be future pieces of the puzzle in Milwaukee. "You can learn a lot from these guys," said McClendon, who has made two appearances in his fourth callup of the season. "It doesn't start during game time, it starts when we first show up to the field. You see what they're doing out there, how they're getting ready for the game. You kind of pick their brains, see what they're doing and watch how they go out there and attack guys." It's a unique situation, considering players such as Henderson and McClendon are working to possibly take the jobs from some of the Brewers' relievers for next season. And considering Rodriguez's status as a potential free agent, as well as the other struggles, that's a distinct possibility. After Henderson made the first two saves of his career Tuesday and Wednesday, Roenicke said he has shown he could stick around next year and beyond. Henderson isn't going to take that for granted, though, as he plans on treating the rest of the season as an audition for a permanent position. "I'm putting some pressure on myself in that respect to go out there and try and pitch well every day," Henderson said. "I'm 29 years old. You don't get many shots when you're that age as a rookie, so I'm hoping to make the best of the opportunity."
Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.