Jake Elliott pitched an inning of relief on Tuesday, then made his first start for the Buffalo Bisons on Thursday. The right-hander went a total of three innings in his two outings, before another call to the bullpen.
The Bisons have only two true starters on the roster and are forced to utilize the depth of their pitching staff. Using anywhere from four to six pitchers in a game, Buffalo has been looking for a way to squeeze the most innings out of its arms.
“We’re really relying on [the bullpen],” catcher Stevie Berman said. “Especially with so many starters going up and down with the big leagues ... they’re really picking us up.”
Using a staff of almost entirely relief pitchers, the Bisons have successfully pieced together one of the top team ERAs in Triple-A baseball, despite a 7-1 loss to St. Paul on Thursday in Sahlen Field.
It only took two pitches for the game to get away from Buffalo in the seventh inning. Three-run home runs by Spencer Steer off Bowden Francis and by Caleb Hamilton off Derek Holland put the Saints up by six, breaking open what had been a tie game. Beyond that, the five-man staff by committee held St. Paul to one run.
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“It was a good game for a while,” said Bisons manager Casey Candaele, whose club entered the game with a 3.93 team ERA that was second in the International League. “But it’s just the way the game works.”
Despite the loss, the Bisons (39-29) will remain in first place in the IL East Division for at least another day.
Buffalo now has one question remaining: How can it make this situation sustainable for however long it needs to be?
“It’s one of those things where you take opportunity ... with me and Thomas (Hatch) being the only two starters right now,” said Buffalo ace Casey Lawrence, who is 8-1 with a 1.85 ERA and struck out a season-high 11 Saints on Wednesday. “We know the importance of going out there and pitching deep into the game. Then the other four, five games we’ll be able to let the bullpen be fresh.”
One benefit of the six-game series the IL has adopted is that the Bisons are seeing a nearly identical lineup each time. It allows for the coaching staff to make strategic decisions as to who enters the game when, depending on which Saints player comes into the batter’s box.
However, the same can be said for St. Paul or any other opponent.
“You can get the hang of who you’re facing, but they have it on us too,” Berman said. “It’s really a chess match. It’s really fun though because you have to know when to change it up sometimes.”
Only having Lawrence and Hatch as bona fide starters, Candaele said he also looks at the versatility of the bullpen since there’s no telling what can happen once a pitcher is called up to the Toronto Blue Jays.
“We have to mix it up here,” Candaele said. “Because if they go to the big leagues, they won’t [always] be going as a closer. And if they’re doing that exclusively it doesn’t give them the chance to come in the sixth inning.”
The answer to the team’s sustainability could lie almost solely in matchups, as the Bisons continue working through Toronto’s need for starters. For now, allowing pitchers to pitch as long as necessary, and safely, Candaele said is how he’ll keep maneuvering the challenge.
“It’s basically mix-and-matching guys who may have opened before, and seeing how they do,” Candaele said. “It’s really just trying to get guys on the mound and throwing enough innings to get through the game.”
The Bisons lead the six-game series with St. Paul, 2-1, and it continues Friday night at 7:05.