By: Nick Roark
The Tennessee Smokies’ bullpen has experienced its fair share of highs and lows this season. Consistently among the bottom of most Southern League statistical categories, the Smokies’ relievers were faced with many first-half hardships and dealt with key departures from players such as Brian Schlitter, Marcus Hatley and Trey McNutt.
But the relief corps has heated up as the temperatures have become warmer. The Tennessee ‘pen now possesses the lowest monthly ERA it has seen all season with a 2.34 clip in July. The Smokies’ 13-6 record in the month of July coincides with the improvement of its relievers, says pitching coach Jeff Fassero.
“Over this winning streak, the whole bullpen’s done a great job,” Fassero said. “That’s where we were a little weak in the first part of the season, losing games in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings of games.”
Starter-turned-reliever Yeiper Castillo has been among the most improved of the relievers. The 24-year-old right-hander was promoted to Tennessee from Daytona on May 23rd and began in the Smokies’ rotation.
The Venezuela native went 0-1 with a 5.95 ERA in four starts before being placed in the bullpen, a spot Fassero says Castillo is better suited for.
“He’s much more comfortable not knowing when he’s going to pitch,” Fassero said. “Every time you watch him between starts, there was a lot of anxiety built up and…I don’t think he’s cut out to be a starter because too much stuff builds up between starts for him.”
Castillo, mainly used as a long-reliever, has made six appearances out of the ‘pen and has allowed only three earned runs in 18 innings pitched for a 1.50 ERA. The 185-pound pitcher has thrown three innings or more in four of his six relief outings.
The Smokies’ bullpen has also been helped by the recent improvement in 2012 Southern-League All-Star Kevin Rhoderick. The 6-foot-1 right-hander possessed a 6.04 ERA before July, but had allowed only one earned run in the month prior to giving up a three-run homer to Jacksonville Suns’ outfielder Jake Marisnick Sunday evening.
The former Oregon State Beaver said “mentally I was a mess” and that he was “rushing a lot” while on the mound.
“I was getting really excited to throw the ball,” Rhoderick said, “and when I started staying back and realizing that I don’t have to be so fast, it really started working better.”
Inconsistencies in the right-hander’s mechanics contributed to a lack of fastball and breaking ball command, but bullpen sessions with Fassero helped correct those issues.
“I just kind of figured out something in my mechanics and started being more aggressive,” Rhoderick said. “Jeff’s been a big help with that and it’s just been fun this month.”
Tennessee will need their bullpen to stay sharp for run at the second-half North Division title and for a possible playoff appearance.
“Right now [the bullpen’s] been doing their job,” Fassero said. “If they continue, I think we’ll be fine.”
To stay current with all the latest news, follow Smokies on Radio on Twitter and like the Smokies on Radio Facebook page. Nick Roark is a Broadcast & Media Assistant for the Smokies Radio Network. You can follow him on Twitter here: NickRoark4.