Sunday, July 31, 2011

Relief coming for Pena? Rough outings, transactions may mean return to PawSox bullpen

Can Tony Pena, Jr. go home to the bullpen now? It’s possible.

With the parent Boston Red Sox having acquired Erik Bedard from the Seattle Mariners before Sunday’s MLB trading deadline, odds are Andrew Miller will be due back in the PawSox’ clubhouse before long.

Either that, or the potentially impending reactivation of Felix Doubront―whose hamstring had him placed on the 7-day disabled list―could offer another option to fill Pawtucket’s rotation.

Perfect timing. If and when he can find a suitable arrangement, Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler might want to consider sending Pena back to the relief brigade, where the veteran pitcher is generally better suited.

Pena’s role in the PawSox’ 7-2 home loss to the Louisville Bats coincided with Miller’s no-decision in a Boston victory at Chicago Sunday afternoon. The ugly upshot at McCoy Stadium dropped Pena to 1-2 on the month and the team to 1-5 in his six July starts.

Pena, who has made 19 relief appearances in 2011, got his first starting nod in a May 22 visit to Toledo and has been a mainstay in the rotation since June 27.

And over his first four starts for the PawSox, Pena charged up a 3-1 record for himself, his only blight being a 3-0 loss to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre during a July 2 doubleheader at McCoy.

Since then, though, Pawtucket is 0-4 when Pena starts. He received three consecutive no-decisions and then took Sunday afternoon’s albatross against Louisville after allowing a season-worst nine hits in a span of five innings. Four of those hits were doubles, all of them playing a direct or indirect part in Pena’s four earned runs.

To be fair, Pena’s four-game winless streak has not been an unadulterated quartet of duds. He was in line for a potential win in two consecutive tangles with the North Division-leading Lehigh Valley IronPigs, having lasted seven innings in both cases.

But in the second of those games last Tuesday, he disassembled in the third after he was nearly spotless through two innings. And this was 10 days after a six-hit, seven-run shellacking in 3.1 innings against Durham and one start before Sunday’s debacle against the Bats.

To start last week’s visit to Coca-Cola Park, Pena benched Delwyn Young and Tagg Bozied on strikes while allowing only one base hit while logging six outs in as many challengers.

But in the third, a hit batsman, back-to-back singles, a sacrifice grounder, a walk, a wild pitch and a two-run single amounted to four IronPigs runs. The complexion of the game thus changed instantaneously as Lehigh Valley usurped a 4-3 lead and ultimately won a seesaw slugfest, 8-7, in 10 innings.

Under ordinary circumstances, Pena’s two sparkling stanzas might have meant keeping the mound warm for Michael Bowden, Jason Rice or Randy Williams to shut the door in the ninth.

Before his June 27 bout with Indianapolis, Pena had pitched a cumulative 39.1 innings, striking out 23 batters and allowing only 14 runs over 18 relief outings.

As a starter this season, Pena has logged 43.1 innings-pitched, thrown 24 Ks and authorized 26 runs. Overall, those differences in data are roughly negligible, but that only suggests that Pena is better suited for slivers rather than slices of action per night.

His lone active return to the bullpen this month happened to be a save situation in Syracuse July 6, when he struck out two men in as many innings to stamp a 2-0 victory. Apart from an identical 2-0 triumph over the hapless Buffalo Bisons three nights later, that is the simplest and smoothest outing Pena has experienced in at least five weeks.

So far, Pena has not quite devolved into a hair-whitening starter. But seeing as he has a day job in the bullpen and that the PawSox may soon have gridlock coming to their rotation in the coming week, it would simply make more sense to revert him back to a reliever.