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First Pitch: The Other Side of the Bullpen Games

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I love bullpen games.

I’ll start with the disclaimer that it is difficult for me to get into the fan mindset, where I need a specific outcome from any single Pittsburgh Pirates game. I run this site and do this job to assist in the enjoyment of the game for Pirates fans. My enjoyment comes from seeing new approaches toward winning. When it comes to the Pirates, a lot of approaches to winning are considered new.

The concept of bullpen games doesn’t add comfort to the fan. There’s a desire for comfort that starting pitchers provide. Tonight, the Pirates will go up against the Cincinnati Reds at home, with Paul Skenes on the mound. That sentence alone puts an idea in your brain that the Pirates will get 5-6 good innings from their young ace. You don’t get the same comfort when you say that Josh Fleming is going to lead off the game and go as long as he can.

In yesterday’s Pirates victory, Fleming went four shutout innings. That was followed by two scoreless innings from Carmen Mlodzinski. The Pirates saw runs allowed from Justin Bruihl and Kyle Nicolas, but they had already scored eight runs before the Colorado Rockies got on the board.

A bullpen game represents a total team effort. The bullpen can’t rely on a starter to take up 67% of the innings in a game. The offense can’t rely on an elite starter to keep the game scoreless for a long period as they try to warm up. A bullpen game requires the “top of the rotation” offense. It also requires that every available pitcher give it 100% for as long as they can.

The only game that matters in a bullpen game is the active game being played. There is no focus on the future. There is no concern for the past. It’s just a team effort toward winning in the present. And that’s what I love about these games.

It didn’t matter that Fleming hadn’t pitched in the majors since May 13th, when he allowed five earned runs in a single inning. That stat line is why fans aren’t comfortable with bullpen games. If Fleming had that same stat line in Sunday’s game, it would have been a disaster. Not just because the Pirates likely would have lost, but because it would have blown the bullpen up even worse than it is today, all for a loss.

But that outing on May 13th saw Fleming enter a game with a 5-0 lead, giving up those runs across two innings as the Pirates kept scoring. Allowing runs isn’t excusable, but it’s a different situation entering late in the game with a 5-0 lead, versus starting the game at 0-0. Fleming obviously entered Sunday’s outing with a much better mindset to get a lot of outs.

Carmen Mlodzinski and the Opener

I like what Carmen Mlodzinski has done during these bullpen games.

On June 8th, Mlodzinski opened the game with 1.2 scoreless innings. The Pirates had a quick hook for him, turning to Luis Ortiz for the next 4.1 frames. The Pirates won, combining for six scoreless innings from Mlodzinski and Ortiz. You would take that outcome from any starting pitcher.

Mlodzinski allowed one run in two innings of relief on June 12th. This was not a bullpen game, but a game where Bailey Falter was limited to four innings, after allowing three runs. The first six innings saw Falter and Mlodzinski combine to allow four earned runs. This isn’t a great result from the “starter” innings, but Mlodzinski limited the damage of a bad day from Falter.

The Pirates returned to a Mlodzinski/Ortiz game on June 14th. This time around, Mlodzinski pitched a scoreless first inning, and was lifted for Ortiz in the second, who allowed one run in five innings. Once again, this combo led to six innings, giving up one run this time in another Pirates win.

Mlodzinski wasn’t the opener yesterday. After Fleming pitched four scoreless frames, the Pirates turned to Mlodzinski with a 1-0 lead. He pitched two scoreless innings, and the offense added five runs during this span. The combination of Fleming and Mlodzinski combined for six shutout innings.

In three bullpen games this month, Ortiz, Fleming, and Mlodzinski have combined to allow one earned run in 18 innings across the first six innings of each game. The Pirates have won all three games, which would be expected from that result.

Ortiz and Fleming get credit for the extended length from their outings. Mlodzinski combined to pitch 4.2 scoreless innings across these three games, providing a constant that allowed the other relievers to stick to going twice through the opposing lineup, max.

Credit to Fleming for the four innings on Sunday. Credit to Ortiz for looking like a rotation depth option in his two recent bullpen games. But a big credit goes to Mlodzinski for maintaining consistency across multiple bullpen games. And, credit to his 0.77 ERA in 11.2 innings since May 31st.

Saving the Bullpen in the Aftermath

David Bednar has only pitched twice since June 11th. Aroldis Chapman has also pitched twice since June 11th. Neither have pitched since Friday night. They should both be available on Monday night. The same goes for Colin Holderman.

The Pirates almost have two different bullpens. They’ve got the bullpen that can shut down the end of the game following the effort from a six inning starting pitcher. They also have the bullpen that pulls together for these bullpen games, or to rescue a starter.

Tonight, they have Paul Skenes on the mound. He’s gone six innings in four of his last five starts, pitching into the seventh in his start last week. The Pirates could use six innings tonight, with support from their offense. This would set them up for the fresh trio of Holderman, Chapman, and Bednar in the late innings.

The bullpen game on Sunday is made possible by relying on Skenes to go six strong innings on Monday. Without that type of reliability in the rotation, the bullpen gets decimated.

Mlodzinski and Kyle Nicolas both pitched multiple innings on Sunday, so they’re unlikely to be available. Justin Bruihl pitched two games in a row, and three of the last four. Josh Fleming obviously isn’t going to be available.

Outside of the winning trio of late inning relievers, the Pirates have Dennis Santana available, after he allowed six runs in a single inning on Saturday. If Skenes can’t go six innings, the Pirates would need to get multiple innings from one of their late inning relievers, or they would need to turn to Santana as the only other bullpen option.

Tuesday’s game sees Bailey Falter start, and there’s always the possibility that he might not have his best stuff. That would require bullpen help, and it’s possible one of the multi-inning guys would be available by then. Wednesday sees Mitch Keller start, and he’s been one of the most reliable pitchers for innings since the start of 2023.

Tonight, the Pirates need quality innings from Skenes. He’s already shown himself to be the makings of an ace in the majors with his ability to strikeout and shut down opposing lineups. Tonight’s game will be less about shutting down lineups completely, and more about saving the bullpen after Sunday’s effort.

It’s early in his career, but this is the exact type of situation where you’d want to turn to Skenes. Tonight’s game will help to define him as an emerging top of the rotation arm.

Pirates Prospect Watch

Sunday’s action saw five shutout innings from Thomas Harrington in Altoona, along with the tenth homer of the year from Lonnie White Jr. Read all about the minor league results in the latest Pirates Prospect Watch.

Pirates Prospect Watch: Thomas Harrington Throws Five Shutout For Altoona

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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