Improv's been the word for Sox, Tigers relief corps
Boston, Detroit both forced to alter bullpen roles on fly throughout season
BOSTON -- Both teams entered Spring Training with concrete ideas of how their relief corps would be structured. Both teams exited Spring Training with that concrete having been bulldozed and pulverized. Both teams had to do serious midseason repaving jobs on top of that.
All of that construction has led to October, so the hard labor paid off, but now that overtime is kicking in, the unconventional bullpens for the Tigers and Red Sox are going to have to earn their hours once again.
It's a good thing that the guys in the hard hats don't seem to mind.
"This time of the year, you can throw for two weeks straight and never worry about getting tired," Red Sox starter-turned-reliever Ryan Dempster said. "Adrenaline kicks in every day."
If you remember, Dempster saved 33, 24 and 28 games for the Cubs from 2005-07, so he's no stranger to relief pitching, even if that wasn't his job with the Red Sox until late September. Boston's bullpen was thrown into flux with season-ending injuries to three pitchers who were expected to be key late-inning arms: closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, and setup man Andrew Miller.
Boston signed Koji Uehara to add a different finesse look from the right side to the mix and watched in wonder, along with the rest of baseball, as he commandeered the closer role in June and ended with staggering season numbers: a 1.09 ERA, 101 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings, and a 0.57 WHIP.
The rest of the bullpen for the postseason has been patchwork, with left-hander Craig Breslow emerging as a multi-inning, late-game force, righty Junichi Tazawa holding down the main setup role, lefty Franklin Morales ready for specialty work, and starters Dempster and Felix Doubront -- along with right-hander Brandon Workman -- available any time otherwise.
It might not be perfect, but it's been working.
"There's probably uncertainty in terms of, 'The phone is going to ring for a new pitcher, and we don't know whose name is going to be called,'" Breslow said. "But beyond that, whoever's name was going to be called, we felt like we could go out there and get the job done.
"Most people subscribe to the notion that bullpens need defined roles, that if you know when you're going to pitch, you're going to pitch better. I don't know that that's true. Certainly Koji knows he's going to close, and that seems to have helped him, and if that's what it takes to help him, I'm all for it."
Over in the other clubhouse, the bullpen similarities are striking.
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland had visions of young lefty Bruce Rondon assuming the closer role heading into Spring Training, but he couldn't throw enough strikes. The Tigers began the season going the closer-by-committee route before signing former ninth-inning man Jose Valverde. That didn't work either. So in June, former setup man Joaquin Benoit assumed the role and saved 24 games while finishing off the year with a 2.01 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 67 innings.
Otherwise, it's another crew of pitchers who are ready to do whatever, whenever.
Drew Smyly, the lefty who started games last year and began this season as the Tigers' long man, progressed to a key late-inning role when Phil Coke, the former holder of that domain, struggled. Righties Al Alburquerque and Jose Veras can be counted on for setup work. They're piecing it together. They don't complain.
"If you're accustomed to a certain role and things suddenly change, it's your responsibility to adapt and provide your services when you're called upon," Coke said. "When it comes down to it, you cannot sweat the small stuff. Whatever role you were in, that's in the past. That's done. It's already been written in the books, man. No sense in going back and thinking about it. There's nothing you can do about it.
"So rather than dwell on it, you stay focused on the task at hand. The name of the game, especially in the playoffs, is advancing and winning. The only way to advance is by winning. Period."
The Red Sox and Tigers have done plenty of that this year, so there might be something to this type of improvisational relief act.
Of course, it helps when starting pitchers go deep into games and minimize a bullpen's use, but October will always bring about those nail-biting moments when matchups dictate pitching changes. Both relief crews seem to be enjoying the uncertainty of it all.
"I think that no matter how well-defined roles may be, when you get into the postseason, everybody needs be ready for that, anyway," Breslow said. "We've had this kind of revolving door in the bullpen because of injuries and the turnover, but there never has been the luxury or fortune ... or the detriment of having defined roles. And we're all used to that."
Added Smyly: "At this point, it doesn't really matter what role you're in or not in. Everyone wants to be in the game. Everyone wants to play and help the team out, so whoever they choose, you just do your job."
And as any pitcher will point out, the choice of who gets the phone call comes down to the manager, not the pitchers. The decisions are not their own.
"[The manager] has to turn something into gold that looked like it wasn't going to be much more than a pile of spent hay, you know what I mean?" Coke said.
"That's about the best way I can put that."