MILWAUKEE -- How far can the Brewers push this bullpen?
Or, put differently, how far can this bullpen push the Brewers?
"Really far," said Francisco Rodriguez, his right shoulder encased in ice after saving a 4-3 win over the Padres on Monday at Miller Park.
The Brewers held onto the best record in baseball, 15-5, after relievers Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg and Rodriguez finished what Wily Peralta, Ryan Braun and Co. had started. Peralta delivered the Brewers' 15th quality start of the young season. Braun logged his first two Miller Park RBIs. Aramis Ramirez added a solo homer and Scooter Gennett a key RBI triple.
The bullpen did the rest, combining for 2 2/3 scoreless innings to drive down Milwaukee's relief ERA to 2.55, a figure that would look even better had Rob Wooten and Wei-Chung Wang not combined to allow nine earned runs in 1 1/3 innings against the Pirates last week. The Brewers' bullpen is a bright spot, despite the fact that Wang is a Rule 5 Draft pick and has only pitched twice, and regular setup man Brandon Kintzler is on the disabled list with a shoulder injury.
Kintzler is due back Friday, and should further fortify the group by giving manager Ron Roenicke a third reliable eighth-inning option, with Smith, who hasn't allowed a run in 11 appearances, and Thornburg, who hasn't been charged with a run in his last 10 appearances. The Brewers hope Jim Henderson, who is off to an inconsistent start, joins that group.
"They've been unbelievable," said Peralta, who won his third straight start after allowing three Padres runs (two earned) in 6 1/3 innings, thanks to the big assist from Smith. "It's been huge for us. It's huge for me, too."
What impresses Rodriguez about this particular relief corps?
"We've got a bunch of young guys who are hungry, first of all," Rodriguez said. "We've got guys who can go up to the mid-90s, to guys who know how to pitch. It's a good balance. As long as we stay healthy, we're going to throw the ball pretty well."
He added: "When you start coming with tendinitis here, tightness over here, tightness over there, and you get out of your line, that's when all the drama starts."
Roenicke is aware of that worry. Rodriguez has extensive relief experience, but the role is new for Smith and Thornburg. Asked how far he could push the current crop, Roenicke paused.
"Good question," the manager said. "We think about it. We talk about it every day. We talk to the guys after they go out and play catch. Relievers are always out there early to see how they're doing, and the guys are pretty honest. When they're gassed and they're hanging, they let us know. We know what we're doing [Tuesday] already. Hopefully, we get a lot of runs tomorrow."
Padres starter Andrew Cashner had surrendered only four earned runs in his first four starts of the season combined, but allowed that many in six innings against the Brewers. Three of the runs scored in a third-inning rally sparked by Peralta's leadoff double to the left-center-field gap, with Gennett, Braun and Ramirez driving in a run apiece.
The Padres cut that deficit to one run in a two-run fourth, scoring the second one on a tough error charged to Gennett. He was trying to complete a double play, but his throw struck the charging runner, Yonder Alonso, on the arm, and bounced away. Chase Headley scored.
The Brewers made it to 4-2 on Braun's RBI single over a drawn-in infield in the fifth inning, but Chris Denorfia answered with a home run off Peralta to lead off the seventh. When Smith averted further trouble in that inning, it helped Peralta improve to 3-0 this season.
"He came out firing," Padres manager Bud Black said of Peralta. "He had a good, tight slider that got under our swings. He's been pitching well. It looks like he's followed in line with what the other guys [in the rotation] are doing."
The Brewers blew an opportunity in the bottom of the eighth inning to give Rodriguez a night off. With runners at first and third with only one out, Roenicke ordered a squeeze from catcher Martin Maldonado, one of the team's most proficient bunters. Maldonado bunted two chances foul, then watched as Herrera took off for second on a ball in the dirt and got thrown out, and Segura got thrown out between third and home on the same play.
That meant Rodriguez had only one run to work with. He allowed a one-out single to Evereth Cabrera that ticked off Gennett's glove, but retired Yasmani Grandal and Seth Smith to end the game for his eighth save and his 11th scoreless appearance.
Over the past six days, Rodriguez has thrown 78 pitches with only one day off. But he insisted he felt better Monday than he did Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, and felt better Sunday than the day before.
"I'm the kind of pitcher, the more I throw, the much better I've felt," he said. "My whole career, I'm used to having a big workload. This is not something new for me. I just have to do my maintenance and be sure to do things the right way."
Rodriguez was asked whether he admits when he needs a day off.
"All the time," he said, surprisingly. "Every time they ask me if I want a day off, I look at the schedule."
So when pitching coach Rick Kranitz asked the question on Monday afternoon, Rodriguez knew the answer.
"Thursday," he said, referring to the Brewers' next off-day.
If Kranitz asks again before the series continues Tuesday, "I'm probably going to give him the same answer," Rodriguez said.