Bullpen Mafia: Burying Games All Season
By Craig Gifford
Filthy, dominating, unhittable, down-right scary.
Those are all words that can be used to describe this season’s Cleveland Indians relief pitching corps – or as those players like to refer to themselves, “The Bullpen Mafia.”
While the starting rotation could be described as decent and the battling lineup, perhaps iffy, it’s the bullpen that has the Indians contending this year in the American League Central Division.
Even after a shaky weekend in Baltimore, the first bad stretch all season for the group, one has to be confident when one of those arms enters a game.
Led by closer Chris Perez, the Tribe bullpen is a good bet to slam the door on opposing offenses most nights. Just ask the Baltimore Orioles.
On Friday night, usually reliable starter Josh Tomlin ran into trouble. He allowed five runs in five innings, departing with a 6-5 lead. He earned his 11th win of the year thanks to relievers who silenced the bats of the Orioles the rest of the way. The evening ended with Chris Perez picking up his 22nd save in 23 chances.
While games typically end with the closer any discussion about the Cleveland bullpen has to begin with the flame-throwing Perez. An All-Star for the first time this year, Perez has been as reliable as they come. Along with the high save percentage, he has WHIP of 1.17 and ERA of 2.55. He is the leader of this group and essentially represented an entire bullpen worthy of inclusion in last week’s Mid-Summer Game.
Of course, speaking of ERAs, one would be remisce to not talk about Joe Smith. Smith, a deceptive side-armer, has always been a solid relief pitcher with an ERA in the 3s each of his first four seasons. This year, it’s at a microscopic 1.27. Smith enters a game, usually in the seventh inning, and simply gets guys out. Smith has allowed five earned runs all year. Until a two-run hiccup on Sunday he allowed no earned runs in his last 27 appearances. His 25.2 consecutive innings with no runs allowed in that stretch was the third best for a Tribe relief pitcher since 1919. He seemed to rebound with a scoreless inning Monday night.
While Smith has been doing his thing for the Tribe since 2009, the “old man” of the relief staff is Rafael Perez.
Perez, at the age of 29, is simply only in therms of his tenure with the Tribe. The southpaw made is debut in 2006. He broke out in the Tribe’s magical 2007 season with a 1.78 ERA in 44 appearances. He was a key component to that great bullpen that helped get the Indians to within one win of the World Series.
The wheels appeared to fall off in 2009 when Perez had an ERA close to 8. He rebounded nicely last season and it has carried over this one. Despited being roughed up by Baltimore on Saturday night, the lefty has a fine ERA of 2.35, covering 38.1 innings.
Perez fills one of two set up roles, with Tony Sipp coming at hitters from the left-hand side. Sipp has been nearly as good as his left-handed counterpart. The third-year reliever is having his best campaign with the Tribe, holding a 2.27 ERA.
Also filling key roles with the Bullpen mafia are a couple of fresh faces, whom the Tribe had no idea what to expect. Vinnie Pestano and Frank Herrmann each broke in with the Indians last season. Pestano has become a back-end of the bullpen pitcher. Along with his sterling 2.72 ERA, Pestano also holds the distinction of being the only Indian besides Chris Perez to carry a save, earning his second on Monday afternoon. Pestano was looked to to close games two weeks ago when Perez took a three-day sabbatical due to the death of his grandmother.
Herrmann has become the Indians’ long reliever. Despite some early struggles, he has lowered his ERA to 4.26 with some strong outings in the past couple months.
The final piece to the bullpen is Chad Durbin, whom the Tribe picked up as a free agen this past winter. He struggled early, as his 6.75 ERA would attest. However, Durbin provides a veteran presence and leadership for the young group. Durbin has been a reliever in the Majors since 1999. Along with personal success, he also pitched in the 2008 and 2009 World Series’ with the Phillies, winning in 2009. He knows what it takes to win at the highest level. On a young team, that experience is absolutely huge.
That’s seven key components to the key part of the Indians’ roster. Without it’s Bullpen Mafia, or team backbone, the Tribe would probably not be sniffing first place, let alone be in first place entering Sunday’s action.
It will be imperative to keep this group in tact the rest of the year. Along with the success of the players, the bullpen has basically stayed in its current form all year. There has not been a significant injury. 11 total relief appearances have been made by pitchers not in this current set up. Without the constant change that a lot of bullpens go through during a year, these pitchers have been able to settle into roles and know when they will pitch on a nightly basis. It is really like a batting lineup that can go unchanged for a long stretch. The continuity really does help with success.
The continuity also helps with team unity. These guys truly seem to like each other, as their self-prescribed nickname would attest. They also have a friendly competition of trying to outdo each other, which is always good for the team.
With this bullpen going forward, the Indians know they only need to get to the sixth inning with a lead, or, at the very least, in a close game. The Bullpen Mafia will typically do the rest to give the Tribe a chance to win every night.