Dragons’ relievers learn under limits, build endurance

Dragons reliever Jacques Pucheu fires a pitch plateward during a  recent game at Day Air Ballpark. Nick Falzerano/CONTRIBUTED
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Dragons reliever Jacques Pucheu fires a pitch plateward during a recent game at Day Air Ballpark. Nick Falzerano/CONTRIBUTED

When minor-league rosters were expanded to 30 players this year, more relief pitchers were needed. The Dayton Dragons have carried 10 or 11 relievers on their roster almost every game. By contrast, the Reds carry eight relievers on a 26-man roster.

Keeping the relievers rested isn’t a problem. Keeping them happy?

“The players don’t necessarily love it because they would like to pitch more,” pitching coach Brian Garman said.

But rested they are, and that’s a good thing for the entire staff. The Reds don’t allow relievers to pitch on consecutive days, and protocols dictate when a pitcher can throw again based on how much he pitched in his previous outing. Garman and manager Jose Moreno aren’t following a script. They can make situational choices and still not wear out their pitchers.

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“It’s about giving guys equal opportunity to go prove that they’ve got the stuff and keep guys from throwing too much too often,” Garman said.

The cancellation of the 2020 season makes this season more difficult for pitchers. While their arms were under less strain for a year, it takes time to rebuild physical endurance and the mental toughness required of the stressful situations relievers often face. Left-handed reliever Jacques Pucheu understands the adjustments, especially because he has transitioned from starter in college to reliever.

“It’s hard to mimic throwing that amount of innings or being at that stress level,” he said. “You can throw to live hitters all you want, but when you put fans in the stands when the adrenaline’s pumped even higher and you’re actually playing a baseball game, you go from an eight to an 11 in that intensity. That intensity over time is what wears guys down early in the year.”

Pucheu hit his limit recently. He threw two innings early in the week and came back on Sunday for 1 2/3 innings. On that Sunday, he got warm in the first inning, but he didn’t go in and sat down. In the fifth, he got warm again and went in.

“I didn’t feel that great,” he said. “And I just told BG I’m cashed – I’m spent right now. When I came out, I was drained.”

Dragons pitching coach Brian Garman meets with the infielders during a recent game at Day Air Ballpark. Nick Falzerano/CONTRIBUTED
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Dragons pitching coach Brian Garman meets with the infielders during a recent game at Day Air Ballpark. Nick Falzerano/CONTRIBUTED

That’s exactly what Garman wants.

“It gives us is the opportunity to encourage guys to go out and really see what they have in the tank,” Garman said. “They can really step on the gas. They know they’re going to get enough time to recover.”

Only twice have relievers – Francis Peguero and Braxton Roxby – been used on one day of rest for an inning apiece in the late innings. They often pitch in save situations, and they have been efficient. Roxby has thrown 16 innings and gave up his first run Saturday night. Peguero has allowed only one run in 12 1/3 innings, walked only two and struck out 14. Garman said Peguero has some of the best fastball command of any pitcher in the organization.

Peguero is also a model for the kind of pitcher Garman is trying to develop – a strike thrower. Only in the past 10 games has the entire pitching staff begun to reduce the number of walks to an acceptable level. But it’s not yet where Garman wants it.

“The only way to do that is to just strike everybody out,” Garman said. “That’s our goal. We talk about that, we’re very open about that. We are trying to strike out every batter we face. If we give up hits, we give up hits, but in order to strike guys out, we have to throw strikes. As a result of that walks will fall.”

Entering Sunday’s series finale with Fort Wayne, Dragons pitchers had combined for a 2.41 ERA in the past five games and won four of them. In the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader, it was a starter who showed some of the stuff Garman wants. Lyon Richardson struck out 10, walked three, allowed two hits and retired the last 18 batters he faced in a seven-inning complete game.

“I continually encourage guys to compete over the plate, don’t be afraid of contact, throw any pitch in any count,” Garman said. “We’re chasing strikeouts for sure.”

TUESDAY’S GAME

Dayton at West Michigan, 7:05 p.m., 980