All in all, things are going well for the Jackson Hammerheads right now. The team has rebounded from a 1-5 start, winning 8 of their last 10 to surge into second in the Eastern Division, hot on the heels of the Knoxville Smokies. But while the Hammerheads are thriving on the field, behind the scenes a rift is developing that threatens to tear the team apart. According to clubhouse sources, manager Lou Hayes is on the verge of losing his bullpen.
Perhaps at the heart of the matter is Hayes’ relationship with closer Sheen. The hard-partying Sheen, whose most notable Patriot League accomplishment to date has been his preseason bar brawl, reportedly lost the confidence of his manager after a lackluster spring training and a tough start to the season. In recent games, Hayes has been using Sheen as a long reliever rather than a closer, bringing him in for multi-inning stints, usually with the Hammerheads trailing. Hayes has repeatedly insisted that he has not removed Sheen as the team’s closer.
Sheen exploded last week after Hayes sent him out for a 3-inning, 37-pitch long relief appearance in a 6-4 loss to Orlando. “Either I’m the closer or not,” Sheen said after that game. “If I’m not, [Hayes] should man up and tell me. If I am, stop running me out there like I’m the mop-up guy.” Hayes reportedly responded to Sheen’s outburst by demanding that he attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Although Sheen’s spat with Hayes is the most public sign of the discord, his teammates are said to be largely neutral in the matter. Sheen has struggled to a 5.40 ERA on the season, and continues to spend far more time in nightclubs than in the film room, so he has not garnered much sympathy in the locker room. The manager’s management of the rest of the bullpen, while far less public, has proven far more controversial internally.
Hayes says that he tend to avoid set roles for his relievers, preferring to manage by instinct. “I trust my gut,” said Hayes. “Sometimes guys are up and sometimes they’re down, and you’ve got to go with the flow. If one of my relievers is in a major slump, am I going to keep running him out in big situations just because he’s my ‘8th- inning guy’? Hell no. Each situation is different, and I want to use the guy I think is right for a particular spot.”
For relievers, who rely on roles to establish a routine, Hayes’ go-by-the-gut philosophy is chaotic. But worse yet, say players, is the fact that in practice, Hayes seems to lean heavily on a couple players – especially Sheen and lefty Brett Pollan – while other relievers are virtually ignored. The result is that Pollan and Sheen are exhausted, while others grow rusty from disuse.
Right-hander Butch Turnbull falls in the latter camp. Expected to be a key piece of the Hammerheads’ relief corps when he was acquired from the Smokies in spring training, Turnbull has yet to appear in a regular-season game. Reportedly, Hayes has provided Turnbull with no explanation for the sidelining. After yesterday’s game, according to sources, Turnbull confronted Hayes in the locker room. “Why the hell did you get me if you’re not going to play me?” Turnbull shouted. “I’m a player, not a spectator. If you’re not going to use me, then trade me.” Hayes ordered Turnbull into his office, where the two remained for 20 minutes.
“It makes no sense,” said one reliever of Hayes’ decisions. “If we weren’t getting work because all our starters were throwing complete game, that would be one thing. But that’s obviously not the case. Why are we sitting?”
Perhaps most controversial of all is Hayes’ treatment of veteran starter Luke Danton. The left-hander was a fixture in Jackson’s rotation, yet on two separate occasions, Hayes brought him in to relieve in between starts. Hayes claimed that on both days, Danton was scheduled to throw on the side anyway. But with a crowded 8-men bullpen and several relievers already begging for work, the decision seemed strange to many.
“Talk about a vote of no confidence in your pen,” said the same reliever. “You bring a starter in on his throw day? Twice? And it’s not an emergency? That’s insane.”
Some on the team feel that Hayes’ overuse of Danton led directly to the strained rotator cuff that has landed the starter on the disabled list. Both Danton and Hayes disagree with the assessment, but some in the Jackson clubhouse hope that the injury will lead the manager to reconsider his bullpen usage. “This could be a scared-straight kind of moment,” said one reliever. “It’s awful for Luke that he went down, but this could be good for us in the long run.”
The manager’s postgame comments suggest that he may be taking steps in that direction. “We’ve been scoring a ton of runs,” Hayes said. “But we’ve been giving up a ton too, and that’s what we’ve got to fix. I think we’ve got the personnel here. It might just be a matter of how we’re using them. I’m not afraid to change it up if it’ll help. It’s early and we’re still feeling it out a bit.”
That seems to be the right sentiment. But it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Is Sheen still the closer? Will Pollan get a break? Will Danton’s injury put an end to the starters-in-relief experiment? Will Turnbull and the others finally get work? The fate of the pen, and perhaps the Hammerheads’ season, hangs in the balance.