Of all the fears, worries and unknowns the Cleveland Indians had in spring training and the start of this baseball season, the back end of the bullpen was not one of them. Setup man Bryan Shaw and closer Cody Allen had made for a pretty formidable one-two punch at the end of ball games in 2013 and 2014 and there was little reason to expect anything different of the Tribe’s ace relievers as the 2015 campaign began.
Then April hit. By the end of the season’s first month the back portion of the pen had become as worrisome as consistency from the offense, finding a number 5 starter and the albatross contracts of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn.
Allen and Shaw went from being as close to sure things as their could be in the eighth and ninth innings to reason for Indians fans to see antacids when they took the mound in the year’s first month.
Allen, coming of his first full season as closer, was especially worrisome. The 26-year-old had earned the closer’s role by the end of 2013, when then closer Chris Perez began to melt down. In 2012 and 2013, Allen worked his way from middle relief to late-inning phenom through excellent work and very good numbers.
As a full-fledged ninth-inning man in 2014, Allen save 24 games and had a 2.07 ERA. He was considered one of the better closers in the game. Last year, his biggest weakness seemed to be faltering in the more important contests against clubs the Tribe was contending with for a playoff spot. The assumption was that could be corrected with time and exposure to the high-pressure situations. Certainly, there was no reason to wonder whether he should be the club’s closer or not. The job was his.
However some questioned that in April, when Allen had a pair of disastrous outings in nine days. In both contests, he surrendered four earned runs. He took a loss and a blown save in those affairs. It was the first time in his career that Allen had been rocked like that at all. There were people who wondered if his work load of the last two years – 76 games, 69.2 innings in 2014 and 77 games, 70.1 frames in ’13 – had taken a toll. His ERA by the end of month number one was an eye-popping 11.57.
For Shaw, the results were nowhere near that bad, but he too was struggling, coming off consecutive seasons being a workhorse for manager Terry Francona. Shaw allowed three earned runs in his first 10 outings and had an ERA of 5.06 after allowing a home run in an April 28 game against Kansas City. The most likely guy to replace Allen at closer, if Cleveland was to even consider the move, was having issues of his own.
In late April, the one spot the Indians felt sure was locked down, was melting down instead. The 26-year-old closer and 27-year-old setup man – both of whom the Indians could hope to hang their hats on for years to come – were looking a lot more ordinary than ever before.
However, that old baseball adage of it is still early when the calendar flips to May could never have been truer. Francona, a players manager to the end, stuck with his guys in the key, late-inning spots and has been rewarded, handsomely.
Allen and Shaw are back to nailing down games, late and dominating. Both followed their disappointing Aprils with tremendous runs of success.
Allen had a stretch of 16 straight converted saves as well as 19 straight appearances without allowing an earned run. Both of those steaks were snapped over the weekend in Cincinnati, when he looked human again for the first time in more than two months. He allowed a run on Saturday, albeit in a 9-4 waxing of the inner-state rival. He finally blew a save on Sunday, though Cleveland came back to win in extra innings.
Before that, Allen had not allowed a run in June, which fallowed a 2.35 ERA month of May. He has been enjoying a good start to July before the weekend set back. All-in-all, his numbers for the season are now a lot more Allen-like at 19 save in 21 chances and much more respectable 3.46 ERA.
The same is true of Shaw, he rebounded from the start of his season, and now has an amazing 1.89 ERA in 40 outings, covering 33.1 frames. After coughing up runs in three of his first 10 appearances, Shaw has since allowed some one to score in three of his 30 games since. That is a lot more like it for a guy who is young, yet in his fifth season of strong relief work.
With Allen and Shaw leading the way, the Tribe bullpen is now again a strength. The worries of high-paid guys getting back their groove and the offense producing more than every four or five games are back to being the biggest problems for the team.
Allen and Shaw have proven that if they are down, they can get back up. That is an important mindset for players in their positions. Neither has been locked up long-term yet by the Tribe, but you would have to think that is coming as the Indians have identified and locked up other core players the last two years.
The back end of the bullpen seemed settled on April 1. After a bit of hiccup, it again seems settled and could be for years to come. Some teams search wide and far for good relief wok. The Indians have it in Allen and Shaw and would be wise to keep it.
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