Eighth-Inning Struggles Are Hurting Cincinnati Reds' Chances at NL Central Title

Kyle Newport@@KyleNewportFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2013

October 3, 2012; St. Louis, MO. USA; Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Jonathan Broxton (50) walks off the field after being taken out of the game during the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals won 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being tied for the third-best record in Major League Baseball, the Cincinnati Reds are being held back by the team's late-game pitching troubles.

The team had the best bullpen in baseball last year, thanks to the trio of Sean Marshall, Jonathan Broxton and Aroldis Chapman. Everyone else in the bullpen stepped up last year, but it has been a disappointing part of this year's team.

Cincinnati's bullpen is No. 11 in all of baseball, but there have been quite a few games that they have let slip away.

What has been the biggest weakness for this team? 

Easy answer: getting through the eighth inning with the lead.

Last year, the Reds were tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the sixth-best team ERA in the eighth inning at 3.28. This year the Reds are tied with the Houston Astros at 5.18 for the fourth-worst ERA in the eighth.

It's a small sample size, but it's a telling statistic.

In eighth innings in 2012, Chapman had a 1.15 ERA, Marshall was at 1.75 and Broxton had a 3.86 ERA—while with the Reds. 

Although the Reds are still winning, the eighth inning has already cost the team multiple games in the standings this season. With the St. Louis Cardinals owning baseball's best record, the Reds can't afford to let games slip away so often.

Here's a list of games the Reds have struggled with in the eighth inning in just over two months of play (led or tied unless otherwise noted):

Date Opponent Score Entering 8th Pitcher(s) Runs Allowed Result
4/3 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim         4-3 Broxton      1 W, 5-4
4/14 Pittsburgh Pirates          6-4 Broxton      4 L, 10-7
4/15 Philadelphia Phillies         2-0 Bronson Arroyo      2 W, 4-2
5/6 Atlanta Braves     Trailed 4-2 Logan Ondrusek      3 L, 7-4
5/8 Atlanta Braves    Trailed 2-1 Leake, Marshall, J.,J. Hoover      5 L, 7-2 
5/17  Philadelphia Phillies          3-3  Marshall      2 L, 5-3 
5/19 Philadelphia Phillies         2-0 Broxton      1 L, 3-2
5/26  Chicago Cubs          4-1 Ondrusek      3  L, 5-4 (in 10) 
6/2  Pittsburgh Pirates          4-2  Broxton      2  L, 5-4 (in 11) 
6/4  Colorado Rockies          4-3  Sam LeCure      2 L, 5-4 

Even when the Reds haven't been winning entering the eighth, the bullpen has struggled to give the team a chance to win.

Part of the reason for the lack of success has been because Marshall has had to battle injuries. He is on the disabled list for the second time this year, so the Reds have had to use other relievers out of their normal roles.

The biggest issue has been the inconsistency of Broxton.

He posted a 1.80 ERA for the month of May, but he was shaky even when he converted saves. He reminded Reds fans of former closer Francisco Cordero with his ability to allow runners to reach base and then escape.

Broxton has allowed at least one runner to reach base in nine of his last 10 outings. He's allowed at least one run in four of those games, so he has had some trouble getting out of his jams.

The veteran has been the main contributor to two collapses in Pittsburgh on getaway days. The Reds led 6-0 in the first game in April, and they held a 4-0 lead in the most recent meeting. Broxton coughed up the lead in the eighth inning each game.

Cincinnati re-signed Broxton to a big contract in the offseason, but he is struggling to live up to expectations. He has been good for most of the season, but he has been the victim of numerous comebacks.

It looked like a message was being sent to Broxton when manager Dusty Baker brought Sam LeCure in to protect a one-run lead in the eighth inning on Tuesday. LeCure, who had gotten the team out of jams all year, was squeezed by the home-plate umpire and made a mistake to Troy Tulowitzki with two outs that cost the Reds the game.

With Marshall on the disabled list and Broxton going through some struggles, LeCure seemed like the logical choice as setup man. However, he took the loss and left the team with even more questions.

If Broxton continues to allow runs, the Reds will need to find someone who can get the ball to Aroldis Chapman. No, Chapman won't pitch two innings. J.J. Hoover has shown that he can close games, so he could be a candidate if Broxton is ineffective.

This isn't blaming Broxton for the team's eighth-inning problems.

He has been in the middle of many of the games, but he has done a fairly good job this season. His 4.63 ERA is inflated by the first Pittsburgh collapse.

The biggest concern for him is the lack of strikeouts.

The right-hander is averaging a career-low 5.79 strikeouts per nine, and he is on pace for the most walks he has had since 2010. That's a tough combination to have considering his ground ball to fly ball ratio has declined since last year.

His ratio shows that he is vulnerable to allowing home runs, having already given up three this year. He hasn't allowed more than four in a full season since 2007.

When the Reds are healthy, they have a dynamic trio of Marshall, Broxton and Chapman. Right now the team is working to get its pitchers through some rough patches. Chapman looks back to normal, but now it's time for Broxton to adjust.

Although Broxton has been the main setup man, this is an issue that involves more than just him. Other pitchers have come in late in the game and allowed runs to hurt the team's chances of winning.

Broxton will become more consistent as the season goes on, and Marshall will be an important piece to the bullpen when he returns. They will look to lead this team to a division title once their struggles are past.

The Reds could easily be sitting in first place of the National League Central right now. Every team has games that they let slip away, but the Reds have had more than most.

On each of the past three Sundays, the Reds had comfortable leads, only to blow them late in games. With at least a two-run lead heading into the eighth inning of each of those games, the team has to be kicking itself for not holding on.

Cincinnati's starting pitching ranks second in baseball with a 3.12 ERA, and the offense ranks ninth in runs scored. They have a balanced team and are in great position to be playing baseball in October. If the late innings continue to be problematic, the Reds could find themselves with a Wild Card.

The Reds are built to beat teams over five or seven games, but a one-game playoff would put pressure on everyone to be perfect, especially if it's not at home. 

It's tough to find the flaws of a team with the third-best record in baseball. However, being in that position allows fans to see what areas of the team could cost the team when it comes time for playoff seeding.

*All stats are courtesy of MLB.com.


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