The Greatest Summer Ever: Bullpen Power

Throughout the 2015 season, Did the Tribe Win Last Night will take a look back at the 1995 Cleveland Indians for the 20th anniversary of their fourth pennant winning season. Included will be historic game recaps, headlining stories and a ranking of the team’s most influential players that truly made 1995 The Greatest Summer Ever. Today looks back at the awesome power of the ’95 bullpen.

It is hard not to look back at the 1995 Indians and think about their hitters. Albert Belle. Carlos Baerga. Kenny Lofton. Jim Thome. Manny Ramirez. Eddie Murray. Sandy Alomar. Omar Vizquel. It’s a Hall of Fame worthy lineup with several players that have Hall of Fame credentials. Defensively, the roster boasted 32 Gold Glove Awards as well, led by Vizquel’s 12 at shortstop.

In addition to the slugging offense, the starting pitcher quartet of Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, Charles Nagy and Ken Hill also had 11 All-Star appearances between them with a Cy Young Award (Hershiser) and a perfect game (Martinez) to boot. With so much star-power, it is easy to forget about the other aspect of that roster that was equally as dominant as any other…but it wasn’t supposed to be.

The Indians bullpen was the team’s biggest question mark heading into the 1995 season, as the back end was close to a complete nightmare scenario. The Indians had been in search of a closer since the beginning of the 1993 season when their budding star, Steve Olin, was killed tragically in a boating accident during Spring Training. The 1993 team was led by non-closer Eric Plunk’s 15 saves and then the 1994 roster used a closer-by-committee approach, employing Jeff Russell, rookie Paul Shuey and Steve Farr to get a meager 14 saves amongst the three of them. Something had to give and General Manager John Hart was ready for action.

To improve the situation, Hart signed veteran free agent lefthanders Paul Assenmacher and Jim Poole to contracts and also added former closer Gregg Olsen as well. Olsen never panned out for the Indians, struggling through just three games in 1995, but Assenmacher and Poole proved to be just what was needed in the setup and situational innings.

Assenmacher worked to a 6-2 record in 47 games and posted a 2.82 ERA. It wasn’t until June that Assenmacher even surrendered an earned run. Meanwhile, Poole was nearly as good, working 42 contests while posting a 3-3 record with a 3.75 ERA; not bad for an era of juiced hitters.

To add another arm to the mix, the Indians converted rookie starting pitcher Julian Tavarez to a reliever and Tavarez proved to be a key piece in the Tribe’s mighty bullpen. Tavarez was dominant all season long, posting a 10-2 record with a 2.44 ERA in 57 games. He had a WHIP of 1.14 in 85.0 innings of work and became the Tribe’s primary setup man down the stretch—even ahead of the veteran Plunk. The 10 wins in relief set a record for the most ever by a Tribe rookie. Tavarez had come up as a starting pitcher and had a cup of tea in the Majors in 1993 and ’94, but was immediately accepting of his new role.

“For me, I didn’t want to get sent down to the minor leagues,” Tavarez said. “When I spoke to the veteran guys, they were like, ‘You’d better take it because that’s what’s going to help you to be in the Major Leagues…being able to do different jobs.’”

Tavarez adjusted quickly in no small part to the veteran leaders in the clubhouse.

“It didn’t take much for me to be ready for that routine because I was focused.”

With excellent seasons from Tavarez, Assenmacher, Plunk and Poole on the horizon, the biggest question mark still remained the closers spot heading into the season. All throughout the strike-shortened Spring Training, the Indians considered trading for an established arm to put at the back end, but the price proved to be far too costly for a midmarket team already loaded with stars.

The Indians kicked the tires on veteran stoppers Bryan Harvey, Rick Aguilera, Jeff Montgomery, John Hudek, Rod Beck and Randy Myers at different times, but the cost was far too high. The general consensus was that the Indians would have to have parted with at least two prospects and would have had to absorb a large salary as well. Harvey was due to make $4.5 million in 1995, Aguilera $3.8 million—which would have jumped to $4.2 million if he was traded—and Montgomery $4 million. Hudek would have been significantly cheaper, but many in the organization wondered if Hudek was really a big upgrade over Plunk or even a former starter, Jose Mesa.

Mesa had been the Indians best starting pitcher for the 1993 season, leading the club in victories. With the return of a healthy Nagy and the additions of Martinez and veteran starter Jack Morris in 1994, however, Mesa was sent to the bullpen to perhaps allow him the opportunity to use his powerful right arm to dominate in shorter stretches.

“When Jose was a starter he would dominate for the first four innings and then kind of lose his command,” Mesa’s longtime catcher, Alomar, said.  “I thought he had a tremendous arm to be a closer.  He had a great breaking ball, a slider and a great fastball so he had three quality pitches. I figured he would have success closing games.”

Alomar was right. As it turned out, Mesa got the first opportunity to close for the upstart ’95 Indians and he never looked back. Mesa turned in the most dominating relief season in franchise history by posting a 3-0 record with a 1.13 ERA—the lowest ERA in club history for a pitcher with over 60 innings of work. Mesa converted a franchise record 46 saves in 48 chances with the first 38 setting a then-Major League record for consecutive saves to start a season. Mesa finished second in the American League Cy Young voting and fourth for AL MVP. He also won the AL’s Rolaids Relief Man Fireman of the Year Award as well as the Man of the Year by Cleveland’s chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

“Mesa just shut it down. It was incredible,” Lofton added.  “When he came into the game we said, ‘It’s a wrap. Done deal.’ We put him in the position that he was able to do it, but he always closed the door. He was Joe Table. He closed the door and there was nothing the other team could do about it. It was fun to watch.”

In what turned out to be a total game-changer for the Indians, Mesa’s 1995 season along with the rest of the dominant ‘pen took the Indians from contenders to run-away Division Champions.

“It was obviously a huge advantage to have those guys,” Seattle Mariners third baseman Mike Blowers said of his ALCS opponent. “Not only did they throw hard, but there were a lot of veteran guys that had been around. They knew what they were doing when they came in, so it wasn’t a situation as an offense where you felt like ‘Let’s just get into their bullpen and take advantage.’ That was the furthest thing from what you wanted to do. Once you got into that ‘pen, you were in big trouble.”

The dominance of the bullpen was not lost on the Indians clubhouse either.

“It’s as good as any bullpen I’ve ever been a part of,” Plunk said.  “Depth wise, it was probably better than any bullpen I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s probably number one. I’d say number one,” Tavarez said when ranking the 17 Major League bullpens that he was involved with. “You don’t get guys who throw that hard or have the kind of mentality that those guys had everywhere.”

It was the same mentality that the entire 1995 Tribe had, but the bullpen was supposed to be the weak link, remember.

Photo: Plain Dealer File Photo

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