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Did The Tribe Win Last Night? | April 24, 2014

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Pestano a Perfect Fit for the Indians Bullpen

During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the players that are difference makers in how successful the Indians season will be.

By Bob Toth

Bullpens prove to be somewhat unpredictable and temperamental machines from year to year. They may function adequately as a whole for a time with no necessary attention needed. Sometimes, parts may show some wear and tear and need repair, putting more strain on the remaining pieces of the machine to shoulder the additional load. Other times, the parts may just need to be recalibrated from overuse and other pieces may break down altogether and need to be completely replaced.

In the machine that is the baseball bullpen, guys get overworked, they lose their mechanics, or they fight through injuries. The league may adapt, making them less successful if they are not able to make the necessary adjustments as quickly as possible.

The Cleveland Indians have a nice problem on their hands. They return three solid back end of the bullpen arms in Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, and closer Chris Perez. The three combined to be one of the more formidable units in all of baseball last season.

Pestano has already had an atypical start to his spring routine. His success at the big league level over the last several seasons earned him a spot on the Team USA roster for the World Baseball Classic, an honor he shared with Perez.

An injury to Perez changed the plan slightly, but Pestano still headed to Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, to pitch in the exhibition.

In the first round against Mexico, trailing 5-1, Pestano entered in relief and pitched a perfect inning, striking out a batter and inducing a pair of groundouts, including that of former Indians outfielder Karim Garcia.

In their second round matchup with Puerto Rico, Pestano earned a hold with the usual inning of business, allowing just a single to Indians teammate Mike Aviles after he struck out St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

In his final appearance in the tournament, he entered in relief of San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong. Coming in with a runner on first and two outs in the top of the sixth inning against Puerto Rico in a must-win game, he gave up a single to Aviles and walked back-to-back hitters to force in the second run of the game. A two-run double followed, which ended Pestano’s evening without retiring a batter. Team USA would lose the game by a 4-3 final and was eliminated from the tournament.

Pestano, the self-proclaimed “Pro Geek”, took to Twitter the same night and tweeted some powerful statements about his efforts in the game that were a stark contrast from his more usual observations of life, baseball, video games, Walmart, and the disadvantages of drinking expired milk.

“Choked on the biggest stage of my career. Let a lot of people down tonight, this is something I cared deeply about and will stick with me.”

He proceeded to tweet: “Being someone that prides himself on pitching in big moments this was unacceptable, gotta learn from it and be better for it in the future.”

After wishing luck to Aviles and catcher Carlos Santana while representing their countries and the Tribe in San Francisco in the next leg of the tournament, he said: “This wasn’t another game in March for me, this was a win or go home for my country and I failed…I hope you know what it meant to me. #WBC”

Pestano was in a small minority of players who had the privilege to play in the Classic and it was clear that he recognized the honor that it was, especially with a decreasing amount of opportunities to represent his country on a global stage with the game of baseball not currently represented in the Olympics.

While Pestano may be disappointed in the end result of his WBC experience, the Indians may be more grateful that he had his first opportunity to pitch in a high intensity, meaningful ballgame on a playoff-caliber stage, even if it came in March. The passion and emotion he expressed regarding his performance would only seem to indicate he will use the experience as motivation the next time he finds himself pitching in a “big moment”.

Who knows, the next one could even happen sometime this season.

Now since returned to Spring Training with the Indians, he resumes the role he carved out alongside his Bullpen Mafia teammates, Smith and Perez. With the injury to Perez, Pestano’s efficiency and flexibility provides the Indians with an insurance policy in the event that Perez is forced into any prolonged absences or disabled list appearances, whether it be at the start of the season, or during it.

Last season, when Perez left the team just prior to a September game to join his wife for the birth of their child, Pestano was able to immediately fill in for the All-Star closer and saved a pair of games for the Tribe. He has saved five games over the course of his three seasons in Cleveland.

He excelled in the role of a setup man. His 70 appearances on the season were second only to Smith’s 72 for the lead on the team. He earned a 3-3 record and led the relievers in the bullpen in many key statistics, including ERA (2.57), strikeouts (76), innings pitched (70), WHIP (1.10), and batting average against (.207).

He did not just rank well amongst his teammates. He spent the majority of the season leading all of baseball in holds (pitching during a save situation without relinquishing the lead or finishing the game). By season’s end, with far fewer opportunities than he saw during the first half of the year, he finished second in the big leagues with 36, trailing only the 37 of Joel Peralta of the Tampa Bay Rays. He broke Rafael Betancourt’s club record of 31, established in 2007.

Pestano is capable of shutting down the opposition. In each of his first 21 appearances to start last season, he recorded at least one strikeout, the longest streak by a Cleveland reliever to start a season since 1918. He struck out an opposing batter in 55 of his 70 appearances.

He did not just limit batters by striking them out. He kept them from crossing home plate altogether. Starting June 27th, Pestano began a streak of 21 2/3 innings pitched without allowing an earned run. The streak ended with an Albert Pujols home run on August 13th. His ERA dropped from 2.10 to 1.24 in that time.

Only once throughout the entire season did he allow runs to score in back-to-back appearances.

Pestano saw some of his best work happen against right-handed batters. He limited them to just a .168 batting average. He struck out righties six times as often as he walked them.

Further evidence of Pestano’s positive impact on the ball club showed up in the win column. The Indians were 50-20 when Pestano made an appearance on the mound.

Pestano did hit a wall towards the end of the season, starting with Pujols’ home run in August. Over his final 19 games, he allowed 13 earned runs and five home runs while allowing opposing batters to bat .300 off of him. His ERA during that span was an uncharacteristic 6.16.

Over the course of the first 51 games of the season, Pestano was completely locked in. In 51 innings of work, he had a 1.24 ERA, allowed just a 0.92 WHIP, and had a .165 batting average against him. He was 3-0 in those games with 31 holds. The Indians were 39-12 in those games.

“I had a really bad last six weeks of the season last year,” Pestano said in video on Cleveland.com on January 18th. “It left a really bitter taste in my mouth. I was happy with how my season was going the first four and a half months. Obviously I was throwing well. The last six weeks kinda snowballed on me and that definitely left me with a lot of questions and a lot of motivation going into this year. It’s just one of those things that you can never get too comfortable and never get too ahead of yourself in any aspect. I still have a lot of stuff to work on on my lefty/righty splits. I’m not going to be content with where I’m at or what numbers I have. There is always something to improve on, regardless of what the numbers say. There is always something you can get better at.”

Heading into 2013, Pestano will take the field with what presumably will be a much more potent lineup on offense, led by the respected Terry Francona.

“When Terry’s name came up, I thought it was a great idea,” Pestano said. “After speaking with Terry, I’m very proud and very happy to be playing for him. I’m looking very forward to playing for him.”

“Obviously, I think we had a very exciting winter. It was obviously something we needed. We lost some guys that opened up some money and I think we spent that money very well. Regardless, I have to worry about how I perform.”

Pestano’s late season demise, coupled with the unfortunate turn of events in the World Baseball Classic, may provide him with plenty of fuel and incentive to sprint back out to the bump in the center of the diamond to prove to the world that he is the same dominating setup man that he has been throughout the better part of his career. His durability and flexibility are absolute assets to the Indians bullpen and will be a key to the team’s success moving forward.

Over the course of the long 162-game schedule (and hopefully beyond…), having a guy with the skills and the passion that Pestano possesses has obvious benefits and could never be a bad thing.

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer