OAKLAND -- When the Reds were putting together their roster before the season started, an area that looked airtight was the bullpen.
It wasn't misguided for the organization to feel so comfortable. After all, Reds relievers led the Major Leagues with a 2.65 bullpen ERA in 2012 and were a significant help in winning the division title. Every single member of the group that made it happen was coming back, from closer Aroldis Chapman to Sean Marshall to Jonathan Broxton, Sam LeCure, Alfredo Simon, J.J. Hoover and so on.
However, as the Reds have been reminded this season, being a reliever is a volatile profession. Cincinnati's 2013 bullpen is ranked 11th in the NL with a 3.89 ERA. Opponents that batted .198 in May are batting .255 in June. The bullpen's ERA was 2.61 for May and 5.09 in June. Last season, the Reds were 75-7 when leading after seven innings. This season, they are already 37-6.
"Sometimes you lose the mojo or lose the feel of a certain pitch," pitching coach Bryan Price said. "Sometimes guys have years where they're really good at coming in with inherited runners. Then the next year, a high percentage of those runners score. In baseball, to be consistent year-in and year-out is a very difficult thing. That's no more magnified than in the bullpen."
And sometimes, personnel are missing. The Reds have been without lefty setup man Marshall twice this season. Marshall began his second trip on the disabled list with a shoulder injury on May 24. Right-handed setup man Broxton has been out since June 15 with an elbow injury.
While the Reds have weathered numerous injuries throughout the season, these two particular losses have presented some tougher tests. The bullpen has had periods of brilliance amidst the vulnerability. But there have also been times the group has been taxed to the limit and hasn't come through.
"I think the one thing you realize is there is only so much you can do when you lose main cogs like Broxton and Marshall," Price said. "We've done a good job of showing confidence in our guys to go out there and do the job in crunch time."
Among those who have taken well to the increased visibility of their role is LeCure. None of the nine baserunners he inherited this season have scored. Last month, he had a stretch of 10 straight appearances without allowing a run. He gave up runs in three of the next four appearances but none over his last three.
Lefty Manny Parra, who was knocked around earlier this season and spent much of May on the DL with a pectoral injury, has been encouraging. Parra hasn't allowed a run in any of his last eight appearances, with only two hits and two walks.
On the other hand, right-hander Hoover has given up seven earned runs, 10 hits and four walks this month. Simon has been charged with eight runs (seven earned) and 14 hits over his last 14 2/3 innings. Three of those runs were actually given up by converted starter Tony Cingrani on June 20 vs. the Pirates. Cingrani, who gave up a run over his one inning in Wednesday's 5-0 loss at Oakland, was moved into relief work because the Reds needed another power arm and a lefty.
Even closer Aroldis Chapman has not been immune. On Saturday at Arizona, just after the Reds took a one-run lead in the top of the ninth, Chapman did not retire any of his four batters. He allowed two runs for his third blown save and the loss. On Sunday, Chapman gave up another run and two hits in an erratic outing before posting his 19th save.
Not having the full complement of relievers has sometimes forced manager Dusty Baker into unfavorable matchups. For example, on June 2 at Pittsburgh, Baker kept Broxton in a game to face lefty hitter Garrett Jones in the eighth inning in a spot that would normally be Marshall's. Jones hit a game-tying, two-run homer into the Allegheny River off Broxton, before the Reds went on to lose in extra innings.
"It goes in cycles," Baker said recently. "You're glad [when] you've got the matchups that work. Sometimes, you match them up and it's not working. Or you've got matchups you're hoping that work and it doesn't work."
"The matchups aren't going to be there with me and Broxton out," Marshall said. "But these guys have enough talent and enough quality pitches to get anybody out."
There isn't much in the way of reinforcements at Triple-A Louisville, but there are familiar faces. Logan Ondrusek had a 5.64 ERA in 21 games during his previous callup. Jose Arredondo has been at Louisville all season, which included a team suspension for disciplinary reasons. Arredondo hasn't put up sterling numbers and has still been prone to walking batters.
"What we're really getting a chance to see is what these guys can do moving forward," Price said. "All of these guys are going to get a chance to pitch in some real crunch-time moments. It gives us an opportunity to assess what we have here and which guys can elevate their status in our bullpen. Some already have, with LeCure obviously being a main guy."
Despite losing five of the last six games, the Reds (45-34) are 3 1/2 games behind the Cardinals and Pirates, who are tied for first place in the NL Central.
No doubt, general manager Walt Jocketty will at least scan the market heading toward the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline and see where improvements can be made. But much of what the Reds are missing in the bullpen will likely be found on the disabled list in Marshall and Broxton. Both have the chance to be back around the All-Star break, possibly sooner.
"It will be a big lift," Price said. "We're talking about two of the better pitchers in those roles that I have seen in recent history."
The Reds will certainly need them in order to remain in the race for another division title.