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Rays corral best work from pen
The relievers were the team's strength last season (third in the AL in ERA) and likely will be again.
By TOM JONES
Published March 6, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - Usually when a manager makes the slow walk to the pitcher's mound, takes the ball from a slump-shouldered pitcher and points to the bullpen, it's a sign of trouble.
But Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella doesn't mind taking a stroll to the mound. Sure, he would prefer his starters throw complete games 162 times a season, but on the 150 or so nights that doesn't happen, Piniella has no trouble dialing up relief.
The Rays bullpen almost always answers the call.
"Probably the strength of our team," Piniella said. "The bullpen has been dependable."
Last season, the pen was more than reliable, finishing third in the American League with a 3.90 ERA. That's why when contracts came up in the offseason, general manager Chuck LaMar set aside a good chunk of the budget to lock in the guys who lock down games.
They aren't household names or even, necessarily, fan favorites. If anything, they are underappreciated.
"But you can't underestimate how valuable a good bullpen can be," LaMar said. "That's why we're committed to keep the bullpen pretty much intact and we even added some help because we know how important it is. Bullpens win games."
Last season, the Rays went 54-6 when leading after six innings, 61-4 when leading after seven and 63-1 when leading after eight. The bullpen converted 35 of 45 save opportunities, or 77.8 percent, fourth best in the majors.
Considering the Rays starters had the third-worst ERA in the majors, it's a wonder the Rays won 70 games.
"Winning 70 games shows how valuable a bullpen can be," reliever Trever Miller said. "You can't win in this league if you don't have a good bullpen and I think we all did our job last season."
Put the emphasis on "all." The Rays bullpen was concocted with versality in mind. There were flame-throwers and junk pitchers. Lefties and righties.
Best of all, the bullpen had a collection of pitchers who could serve many roles. All could get one batter out or pitch three innings in a mopup role. All could be setup men or close a game. Each could pitch as comfortably in the fifth inning of a 10-2 game as in a one-run game in the ninth.
"We have a whole lot of arrows in the quiver," Miller said.
Two years ago, Lance Carter had 26 saves, eighth all-time for a rookie, and made the All-Star team. But when the Rays signed Danys Baez to be the closer before last season, Carter moved smoothly to a setup role. He pitched a bullpen-leading 801/3 innings with a 3.47 ERA, the best among qualifying Rays relievers.
Baez was everything the Rays thought he would be, recording 30 saves, sixth in the AL and third most in team history.
Meantime, Travis Harper led the relievers in victories with six and gobbled up nearly 79 innings. Power pitcher Jesus Colome struck out 40 batters in 411/3 innings. The lefty Miller worked in 60 games, second most on the team. Twelve times he faced one batter, 48 times he worked less than an inning, but he also pitched six innings once.
"We can all fill whatever role is needed," Harper said. "We can do whatever is needed."
Baez is scheduled to be the closer again with Carter as the setup man. But the two could flip-flop if Baez falls into a slump. Some expect Colome, with his 100 mph fastball, to eventually move into the closer's role.
Then there's Seth McClung, who could wind up a closer someday and work out of the bullpen this season. And the Rays picked up lefty Casey Fossum in the offseason. While Fossum could make a bid for a spot in the rotation, he is comfortable working out of the pen.
Harper and Miller will resume their roles of getting the team through the middle innings.
"It's nice to have a dependable bullpen like that, but what we need is our starters to work deeper into games," Piniella said. "We can't overuse our bullpen and tire them out."
That was the key last season. Though the young starters didn't work deep into games consistently, the relievers were kept fresh.
"I don't think we ever got to a point where we were overused," Miller said. "Everyone felt good the whole season, for the most part."
That happened thanks to pitching coach Chuck Hernandez and Piniella, who has a history of using his bullpen wisely and, thus, effectively. In Cincinnati his "Nasty Boys" (Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton) might have been the main reason the Reds won the 1990 World Series.
"You have to use them smart," Piniella said. "If you can do that, give them the right matchups, don't work them too much and keep them fresh, then you can have a good bullpen. They've got the talent. It's up to us to use it right."
If he does, there's a good chance the Rays' motto this season will be: All's well that ends well.