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Rejuvenated Bullpen could be Key to Playoff Push

Rejuvenated Bullpen could be Key to Playoff Push

| On 07, Sep 2013

Any time that the Indians have been good over the past 20 years, they have had an outstanding bullpen.  The 2007 crew that finished a game shy of the World Series featured a 45 save Joe Borowski and the best Rafael duo in baseball history.  The 93 win 2005 group had another 45 save man, Bob Wickman, as well as Bob Howry, Rafael Betancourt and Arthur Rhodes firing with ERA’s under 3.00.  On the division champion ’01 squad, Wickman was joined by Paul Shuey, Ricardo Rincon, Danys Baez, David Riske and Steve Karsay.  Of course, the juggernaut teams of the 1990’s also trotted out big time relievers like Jose Mesa, Paul Assenmacher, Mike Jackson, Eric Plunk and Julian Tavarez.  A good Tribe team seems to need a good ‘pen.

Coming into 2013, the bullpen promised to be not only a strength, but perhaps the backbone of the roster.  They boasted star, young players as well a collective cool nickname that showed camaraderie as well as confidence.  It seemed early in the 2013 season, however, that the ‘Bullpen Mafia’ was dissolved.  The Family was neither cohesive nor effective and the members were not living up to their high expectations.

There seems to be some sort of family reunion of late.

Over the past month, the Indians bullpen has started to regain their old form.  They have kept the Indians in ballgames that they seemed to be out of and have done a good job of locking down sure wins once again.  The members of the 2013 Bullpen Mafia may have taken a while to gel, but the Family is hitting their stride at the perfect time of the year.

The turning point for the bullpen seemed to come when a change was made in late July, as Marc Rzepczynski was acquired at the trade deadline from the St. Louis Cardinals.  Later that same day, struggling former lead-mafia man Vinnie Pestano was sent down to Columbus and the relief corps has been excellent since.

With the demotion of Pestano seeming to inspire the rest of the crew, the collective whole has seemed to kick it up a notch.  Since the beginning of August, really only closer Chris Perez and lefthander Rich Hill have pitched poorly and Perez’s struggles should probably come with an asterisk.  Perez was bombed in two appearances over the past six weeks and his numbers have ballooned because of it.  Since the beginning of August, Perez has posted a 6.43 ERA—largely due to his August 5 meltdown against Detroit and another bad outing on Tuesday against the Orioles.  Otherwise, Perez has saved seven of nine opportunities over the stretch and has been rather effective.  Hill, on the other hand, has been poor overall and his opportunities seem to be becoming more and more rare.

Opposite of Perez and Hill are the pitchers who have pitched well and those include Rzepczynski, Bryan Shaw, Matt Albers and Carlos Carrasco.  Of the group, Shaw has worked the most including a stretch where he pitched four days in a row for the first time in his career.  Shaw has picked it up since the end of July, amassing three holds and a 3.78 ERA over 16.2 innings of work.  Albers, like Perez, boasts a bloated ERA of 5.65, but the number drops significantly to 2.70 since August 3.  Carrasco, meanwhile, has been the Jekyll to his own Hyde out of the bullpen and has not allowed a run in 10.1 innings of relief this season.  Conversely, his ERA as a starter is over 7.00.

In addition to those relievers on good runs, the Indians have received outstanding production from both Cody Allen and Joe Smith.  Allen has collected a 1-0 record, three holds and a 1.56 ERA since August 1.  On the season, Allen has appeared in the most games of any Tribe pitcher and also has the lowest ERA on the staff (2.35).  Over the same stretch, Smith has been even better than Allen by having eight holds while allowing just one earned run over his last 16.1 innings pitched.  Smitty’s ERA over the last month-plus is an amazing 0.55.

Smith, a free agent at season’s end, has one goal in mind.  “So we’re (three) out right now, but we’ve still got a whole month to go,” Smith said in a Paul Hoynes article from The Plain Dealer.

Heading into Friday night’s game against the Mets, the Indians sat three games out of the playoff picture, chasing front running Oakland and Tampa Bay.  The New York Yankees also sat 0.5 games ahead of the Indians and the Baltimore Orioles were tied.  “We’ve got the Mets, Minnesota, Kansas City, the White Sox,” Smith added.  “If we just take care of our business, I don’t see why we can’t gain ground because those other teams in the wild card chase are going to beat up each other because they’re all in the AL East except for Oakland.”

With the September call-ups on hand, the hard-worked ‘pen could get a few breathers every now and then as well.  If a game ever gets out of hand either way, the Indians have Nick Hagadone, Preston Guilmet, Blake Wood, Clay Rapada, Josh Tomlin and Pestano as options.  Needless to say, Ryan Raburn can safely say his pitching days are done for the year, despite his one scoreless inning back in early August.

Another option that the Indians may consider as well includes another pitcher who may take the route that Carrasco took.  Danny Salazar has been an outstanding addition to the starting rotation and is clearly a cog in the Indians present and future plans.  Salazar, however, has been limited to 75-80 pitches per start due to his recovery from arm issues and the Indians may consider moving him to the bullpen to limit his throws once Justin Masterson and Corey Kluber are back and fully healthy.

“I think I have a responsibility to him and the organization to handle this appropriately,” Tribe Manager Terry Francona said of Salazar’s pitch limit in a Sheldon Ocker article from the Akron Beacon Journal in July.  “It’s hard, but I’m not saying it’s bad.”

Salazar moving to the bullpen is pure speculation, but could be an option that the Indians would consider.  Last season, the Washington Nationals shut down their star pitcher Stephen Strasburg in the middle of the playoff race for the same reason.  Salazar’s departure from the rotation could be potentially filled by a healthy Kluber and Masterson, but the addition of his 99 MPH fastball to the bullpen could also be a dominating force.

Anything is certainly possible, and the Indians bullpen seems to be running on all cylinders at the right time.  The Indians opponents from here on out look very beatable and a top fight bullpen could be the answer to the Indians prayers.

“All you’re worried about is that we have to win, we have to win today,” Smith said.  “We’ve got to get into the playoffs.”

Photo: Getty Images