By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — You’ll find no easier way to criticize a manager than for how he deploys his bullpen.
If a reliever blows a lead after a successful outing from a starter, the manager went to the bullpen too soon. If a starter gives up a lead in the sixth inning, the manager didn’t go to the bullpen soon enough.
In the case of Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash, those decisions are made considering a litany of factors. Left vs. right matchups. Career success of batter vs. pitcher, pitcher vs. batter. Pitch count. Which relievers are available on a given day.
Charlotte Stone Crabs manager Michael Johns, though, doesn’t have that luxury. Many of his bullpen decisions are made well before the game starts by people above him, sometimes days in advance.
But from the start of Charlotte’s 9-4 win over Jupiter on Saturday, the day’s plan appeared clear on paper.
Yonny Chirinos, up from Low-A Bowling Green to fill in for the injured Brent Honeywell (right arm tenderness) would start. Blake Bivens, a 2014 fourth-round pick, would come up from extended spring training and pitch for as long in relief as he could. Mike Franco, who had not pitched since Monday, would hopefully finish off whatever was left.
It was a plan likely calculated long before the first pitch, having little to do with numbers and matchups and almost everything to do with covering innings on a schedule. And with some welcome help from the offense, it did the job.
Chirinos needed just 70 pitches to complete six stellar innings, allowing one unearned run on two hits and a walk while striking out two. Bivens pitched two innings of one-run ball before letting three Hammerheads cross the plate in the ninth, but Franco came in with two on and one out and struck out the final two.
It was a much-needed performance. After the events of the previous three days, Johns was to the point of asking how many pitches they had in the tank. And he was only mostly joking.
“The pitching was outstanding,” Johns said. “Chirinos was big tonight, throwing six innings. And Bivens giving us 2 1⁄3 was huge, not only for today, but moving forward to save the bullpen.”
Since the Stone Crabs lost relievers Kyle Bird to Double-A Wednesday and Neil Wagner to Triple-A Thursday, they’ve asked the bullpen to cover 13 1⁄3 innings over four games — two of them seven-inning games as part of a Friday doubleheader.
Wagner covered 1 1⁄3 of those, and position players Pat Blair and Jace Conrad combined to eat another two at the end of blowouts.
The rest, though, were handled by a relief corps that, since Thursday, has only had six healthy members. It wasn’t helped by the fact that starter Benton Moss was limited to 4 1⁄3 innings Wednesday, or that Friday’s doubleheader called for reliever Jeff Howell to throw a 2 1/3-inning spot start.
And since Howell, Ian Gibaut and Edwin Fierro pitched Friday, only three relievers — Franco, Brian Miller and Jordan Harrison — would have been available to pitch.
That’s one of those rules Johns has to deal with. This early in the season, relievers in the lower levels of the Rays’ farm system aren’t yet being asked to pitch on back-to-back days.
“It’s probably the hardest part of our job, trying to figure out how to piece-meal some innings. Especially when you’ve got guys down and got guys moving,” Johns said. “You kind of have to be creative.”
Johns was saved from having to make too many tough decisions. By the time Chirinos exited in the middle of the sixth, Charlotte already led 6-1.
Cade Gotta hit a two-run single in the first, and Cristian Toribio doubled and scored on Landon Cray’s fielder’s choice in the second off rehabbing Miami Marlins pitcher Edwin Jackson (four innings, five hits, three runs, three strikeouts).
Riley Unroe hit a two-run triple and Alec Sole added a run-scoring single in the fourth, Grant Kay reached on an error and scored on a wild pitch in the seventh, and Cray and Unroe both drove in additional runs in the eighth to cap the onslaught.
“They had pitched a lot of innings,” Sole said of the bullpen. “It’s good to see a game that’s nice and quick. You never want to be out there too long, so it’s a good thing to get over with the game and get the W.”
STONE CRABS 9, HAMMERHEADS 4
HITTER OF THE GAME
Landon Cray, Stone Crabs: Making a rare start, the left fielder went 2-for-3 with a double, two RBIs and a run scored.
PITCHER OF THE GAME
Yonny Chirinos, Stone Crabs: Making his first High-A start, the right-hander twirled six strong innings, allowing one unearned run on two hits while striking out two.
Fourth: After the Stone Crabs’ lead had been trimmed to two in the top half of the frame, Riley Unroe’s two-run triple and Alec Sole’s RBI single stretched the lead to five in the bottom half.
THEY SAID IT
Shorstop Alec Sole: “I think if we all kind of band together, once we get one hit, it’s kind of contagious. The mood is uplifted in the dugout. You could see it tonight: It was just one after another after another. We’re playing good baseball.”