When Connor Lambert came trotting onto the field to protect a two-run lead in the ninth inning of Sunday's game against Cal instead of closer extraordinaire Adam Conley, I wondered what was up. Conley had pitched the night before, but it's not like that would make him unavailable -- he's pitched in back-to-back games three other times this year. Was he hurt?
We got our answer on Monday, when Conley took the hill at the beginning of the game, rather than the end, for the first time in 363 days.
The results were borderline spectacular, given the context. Conley set the stage for the sweep by more or less shutting down the Bears. He allowed just two runs through 6 2/3 innings before tiring and allowing a couple of base runners that his relief, Seth Harvey, would allow to score.
Taking one of the conference's best closers (sub-3.00 ERA, nine saves) and completely changing his role in the middle of the season might seem risky, but desperate times call for desperate measures. The Cougs' chances of returning to the postseason were slipping away, due in large part to the state of the back end of the Cougs' rotation. Chad Arnold has been nails on Friday nights, but it's been a crapshoot -- at best -- after that. Everyone else who has started this year had an ERA of 5.00 or worse.
So, coach Donnie Marbut turned to Conley, who was the fuel for the first sweep of the year in the biggest series to date.
It's not as wild of a move as it might first appear; Conley has routinely pitched more than one inning this year (eight times, in fact, with a high of 4 2/3 against Washington on April 3). However, it also wasn't a slam dunk that this would turn out well. The sophomore lefty tried his hand at starting last year, and it didn't turn out well at all -- in four starts, he gave up 13 runs in 16 1/3 innings.
While we don't yet know whether the move to the rotation is permanent -- Marbut has been mum so far -- I think it's reasonable to assume that it is, given how well the first start went.
Could this still turn out badly? Sure -- the obvious caveat of a one-start small sample size applies, and if he can't keep this up, you run the risk of not substantially helping the rotation while simultaneously weakening the bullpen, which has been a major strength of this club.
However, one could make the argument that Conley's replacement in the closer's role, Paris Shewey, has actually been Conley's equal this year. He's got a slightly higher K/9 rate and a much lower opponents' batting average against (although that's due in part to an unusually low BABIP), so there's reason to believe there won't be much of a dropoff in the 9th. The question comes in terms of who sets up Shewey. Harvey was excellent last year, but has been shaky this year. Lambert would seem to be the most likely candidate to slide into Shewey's setup role.
One thing that could help the bullpen? Deep performances from both Arnold and Conley, freeing up Marbut to mix and match with the bullpen as necessary.
I hope Conley sticks in the rotation. It's a risk worth taking at this point. Every other starter has had more than enough time to prove his worth, and it hasn't happened yet. Conley has shown he's a much better pitcher this year than last, so there's reason to believe that his second shot at the rotation will go much better than the last one.