D-backs' bullpen remains together after tough stretch
PHOENIX -- As per usual, the D-backs' bullpen crew of seven took their first-game-of-the-homestand "fun run," traversing the steps of the lower stands at Chase Field before batting practice on Thursday.
The bullpen that runs together stays together.
After a tough first couple of weeks of the season, did the relievers need the bonding experience?
"I hate it, but I needed the run," said David Hernandez, who's in his third season in Arizona as an eighth-inning setup man to closer J.J. Putz.
The D-backs went into this four-game series against division-rival Colorado with a Major League-high seven blown saves. The Cubs, with six, are the only other team that has more than four.
Putz and Hernandez have contributed five of the seven blown saves, including all three games earlier in the week at San Francisco. Putz alone had blown three of his first six. Now make it three of his first seven.
D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said prior to the game that there are no pending changes in the back end of the bullpen, at least for now. And he proved it by having Putz close out another thriller in the ninth inning by defeating the Rockies, 3-2.
Putz made it interesting by throwing 19 pitches, 10 of them balls. He went to a full count twice and walked Dexter Fowler after having him down 0-2. Talk about a knife edge -- Putz was ahead in the count on only four pitches to the four batters he faced. No matter, he earned the desired results, striking out Carlos Gonzalez swinging with two nasty splitters to end the game and record his 81st save in a little more than two seasons with the D-backs.
"I said it in San Fran, I've been through rough spot before and I'm going to go through rough spots again," Putz said. "It's just a matter of putting it behind you and keep working and trust what you've been doing in your career. It's part of it."
D-backs general manager Kevin Towers built this 'pen to win and it was supposed to be one of the team's major strengths. As is his custom and superstition, Towers wasn't around to watch Putz record the save. He ducks into the recesses of the stadium the minute his closer enters the game. Thus, Towers never saw even one of Trevor Hoffman's then record-setting saves when the two were with the Padres. Ditto, Putz.
"Oh, that doesn't happen," Putz said.
Towers prefers to lurk behind the scenes. This past offseason, he picked up old friend Heath Bell as an insurance policy in case of an injury or if Putz and Hernandez don't excel over the long haul.
"They're going through what Heath Bell went through earlier," Towers said about Putz and Hernandez on a local sports radio station after the game on Wednesday. "But Heath Bell has been darn good the last month. He's throwing 95 with a power breaking ball. Pitchers go through [down periods]. They're all mentally strong. It will all fall into place even if we have to shift them around a little bit. The good thing is we have a lot of good options down there."
It was Towers who basically invented Heath Bell when he was the general manager of the Padres, obtaining the right-hander from the Mets on Nov. 15, 2006, in a four-player deal that included no other players of any renown. The Mets didn't know what to do with Bell, bouncing him back and forth to the Minors. In San Diego, Towers put Bell under the tutelage of new manager Bud Black, incumbent pitching coach Darren Balsley, and Hoffman, one of the great closers in history.
For two years, Bell set up for Hoffman and followed him around like a puppy dog, acquiring a lot of Hoffman's legendary work habits. When Hoffman was allowed to go to free agency and finish his career in Milwaukee, Bell took over the closer's role in San Diego, saving 132 games over the next three seasons.
Towers was dismissed and Bell eventually also departed via free agency. Bell spent a miserable season this past year in Miami. And once again, Towers rescued him in a three-way deal that included the A's. The long and the short of it was this: Towers sent outfielder Chris Young to Oakland and acquired Bell, along with the two guaranteed years remaining on his $18 million contract. The Marlins are paying $8 million of that.
"Now, I'm back together mentally, physically and spiritually," said Bell, praising the support he's getting now that he says he didn't receive under manager Ozzie Guillen last year in Miami. "I'm just helping out in any situation they have. If they need me to close or they need me to be a seventh-inning mop-up guy I'm here for them."
Baseball, of course, is a results-oriented business and until Thursday night, this had been the most recent results for Putz and Hernandez: Hernandez allowed a game-tying, two-run, eighth-inning homer to Buster Posey in a loss to the Giants on Monday, and a solo tying homer in the ninth to Brandon Crawford on Wednesday. On Tuesday, Putz was clipped for a game-tying two-run, ninth-inning bolt by Brandon Belt. Despite all that, the D-backs came back and won both of those games in extra innings.
The wins were invigorating, but the process of getting there wasn't particularly pleasant for Towers, a former pitcher who vowed to rebuild a terrible D-backs bullpen when he took over as general manager here near the end of the 2010 season. So far, they've won a division title with the Putz-Hernandez tandem. But that was then, this is now.
"We've not been very good at the back end of our bullpen, making the wrong pitches at the wrong time," Towers said. "We've, I think, blown seven saves, which is more than anyone in baseball. It's early in the season and I'd be more worried if their velocity was down and the breaking balls weren't working."
On Thursday night for Putz, at least, the splitter was moving even though he worked steadily behind in the count. Overall, the bullpen is still 7-2 with a collective 2.57 ERA, good enough for eighth among the 30 Major League teams as of Thursday night.
And that was even as the pregame "fun run" helped keep that crew of seven bound together.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.