MIAMI - The bullpen isn't causing Bobby Cox sleepless nights, not yet, but its rollercoaster performance in five games is cause for concern.
The top three relievers - Mike Remlinger, Kerry Ligtenberg and John Rocker - have been spotty, at best. Remlinger has been mostly solid, allowing just one run in three appearances, but Ligtenberg saw his command vanish in Friday night's game and Rocker has allowed four hits and two walks in 3ä innings.
Cox's biggest concern is Ligtenberg. The setup man blamed Friday's three-walk nightmare on bad mechanics and described his performance as "embarrassing."
"I was brutal last night," he said. "If they hadn't swung, I don't think I would have thrown more than two strikes. This was the first time I had no clue where it was going. It was like I'd never pitched before in my life. I felt like they pulled some guy out of the stands to try and see if he could throw a strike for a million dollars and he wasn't even close."
In three games, Ligtenberg has walked four in 2â innings. This from a pitcher who issued just 24 walks in 52â innings last season. Ligtenberg was eager to get back to the mound, though he and pitching coach Leo Mazzone had had little time to work on his arm angle, balance and follow through, which Ligtenberg blamed for his control problems.
"I'm letting the the team down and letting Bobby down because he doesn't know what he'll get from me the next couple of days," Ligtenberg said. "I'm hoping to get in there so I can get squared away. I'm not too concerned about it because I feel I'm close enough, but it's extremely frustrating right now."
Marc Valdes shares Ligtenberg's frustration. He took over after Ligtenberg loaded the bases with walks, threw three great sinkers to strike out Preston Wilson, then left a sinker hanging over the plate for Mike Lowell to launch over the left field scoreboard for a grand slam.
Valdes, who has worked in three games and has a 4.50 ERA, is in the same unenviable position as three other relievers. He's battling to make an impression and keep his job when the team cuts a reliever in two weeks.
"I think about (job security)," he admitted. "There's only a few guys who don't have to worry about that. They're still trying to get it together as far as seeing guys in certain situations."
GOING WITH THE ODDS:
B.J. Surhoff was a late scratch from Saturday night's game with a sore back. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Dave Martinez, who had three hits Friday, replaced him in left field.
Greg Maddux said Saturday his left foot was sore following Friday's five-inning performance, but that he plans to return to the mound Wednesday on his normal four days rest. That knocks Odalis Perez out of the rotation for one turn because of Tuesday's day off.
"I want to (pitch again), the sooner the better," he said. Perez, who went four innings in Thursday's loss to the Mets, will work out of the bullpen for four days.
Maddux blamed nerves on sapping his strength Friday. He went five innings and made 59 pitches, well below his usual standards.
"The first time out you throw like it's the bases loaded and 0-2 to every hitter," he said. "Hopefully the next time out I'll be a little more relaxed."
WORLD SERIES RING:
Kurt Abbott, a member of the New York Mets last season, will pick up his World Series ring when the Braves open a three-game series at Shea Stadium Monday. The question is, will the Mets recognize Abbott during pregame ceremonies, along with the 2001 team, or will he be snubbed during the introductions and his ring delivered to the clubhouse?
"If they call my name, I'll be very surprised," he said.
Abbott was stunned when the Mets declined to exercise the option on his contract for $750,000 this winter. Though he hit just .217 with the Mets last season, he had three game-winning home runs and he's a career .256 hitter who can play seven positions.
"The ring is meaningful because of what we accomplished as a team last year, but it's not important because of the way they got rid of me," Abbott said. "That doesn't mean I'm not happy to get a ring because I am, but it will feel strange."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.