Bullpen Mafia Back In Control In Cleveland

By Mike Brandyberry

Don’t look now, but the Bullpen Mafia is back and beginning to wreak havoc on ballgames. Just weeks ago, questions surrounded the bullpen and its slow start. An unstable bullpen often leads to instability throughout the pitching staff and the entire team. But, just as the Indians have started winning series and moving in to first place, the bullpen has again asserted its dominance on American League hitters.

A month ago, Chris Perez trotted out of the bullpen to close down Opening Day. The Tribe had a three run lead and Justin Masterson had dominated the Toronto Blue Jays for eight innings. Perez, who missed most of spring training because of a strained oblique, allowed three earned runs in two-thirds of an inning and allowing the Jays to tie the game. Perez didn’t throw first pitch strikes, getting behind on five of the seven hitters he faced.

Immediately, speculation began that Perez might not be ready to start the season. His oblique could still be bothering him and the velocity of his fastball had declined since the middle of 2011. Maybe it would be best if Vinnie Pestano took over the closer duties.

However, since that Opening Day meltdown Perez has dominated, allowing only one run in his last nine appearances. He’s seven of eight in save situations, his first appearance is his only mishap of the season so far.

During that first weekend, while fans were begging for Pestano to take over the closer’s role, he allowed a go-ahead home run on Easter Sunday to the Jays Kelly Johnson. Pestano had entered a tie game in the ninth, a situation normally reserved for Perez last season, and allowed Toronto to take the lead.

Despite the early struggle, Pestano has been the most consistent reliever all season. He dominated through spring training, and with exception of the Easter day home run, has been a fixture in the back end of the bullpen. Pestano has already made 11 appearances, pitching nine and two-third innings and striking out 14.

His 13.03 strikeouts per nine innings, ranks as one of the tops in the American League. Friday evening Pestano entered a tie game in the ninth again, this time with runners on and promptly struck out both Angel hitters to end the inning. The Tribe was able to score in the bottom half of the ninth inning for a walk-off victory and Pestano’s first save.

The relief pitcher who has struggled the most this season is probably Tony Sipp. Just a couple weeks ago Sipp was being banged around in games and slowly moving to the front end of the bullpen. While Asdrubal Cabrera was on the bereavement list and Nick Hagadone was activated, some speculated that maybe Sipp could use some time in Triple-A when a roster move had to be made.

In the meantime, Sipp has had three strong outings, one against Oakland and two against Kansas City. His season numbers still look dismal, but for now he has saved his roster spot and last week manager Manny Acta admitted that Sipp had made some mechanical adjustments and had seemed to have found himself.

With the back end of the bullpen finding itself, roles are beginning to stabilize and it is reflective throughout. Joe Smith has continued to fill his seventh inning role and terror on right handed hitters. And while Rafael Perez has battled injuries throughout the spring and regular season, Nick Hagadone looks Major League ready and able to fill that early left-handed reliever role Perez has been in for the last couple seasons.

Any playoff team contending team the Indians have had over the last 20 years has always comprised a tough bullpen, capable of shutting down the opponent in the late innings. Despite some early struggles, it looks like this group is settling in and finding its stride, just like the rest of the Indians.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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