Monsters of middle relief: Best bets from October bullpens
By JAKE SEINER AP Sports Writer
It’s been three years since Andrew Miller led the Cleveland Indians to the brink of a World Series championship by coming out of the bullpen early and often, and bulk work from relievers has been an October staple since. Whether it’s Brewers All-Star Josh Hader stretching out for three innings or Astros ace Justin Verlander moonlighting in middle relief, aggressive bullpen management has become standard postseason practice.
As the calendar flips, a look at the best relief options — for the biggest outs, and for a bunch of them — for each of the 10 playoff clubs.
NEW YORK YANKEES
For The Big Out: In baseball’s deepest bullpen, the difference maker is Aroldis Chapman. The 31-year-old left-hander has lost some steam — he averaged about 98 mph on his fastball this year, down from 101 at his peak in 2016 — but he’s made up for it with an improved slider that he’s throwing more than ever. Although he famously blew a lead for the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, Chapman has been fantastic in October, posting a 2.30 ERA with seven saves in 27 appearances.
Man In The Middle: CC Sabathia impressed last week in the first regular season relief appearance of his career, and he and J.A. Happ will both be in the bullpen. The left-handed starters could be used in tandem with right-hander Luis Severino, or after a righty opener like Chad Green.
For The Big Out: Taylor Rogers built on a breakout 2018 and emerged as one of baseball’s steadiest closers this year. The 28-year-old is perhaps the most reliable strike thrower in the American League.
Man In The Middle: Two years after he went undrafted, rookie right-hander Randy Dobnak has pitched himself into a key postseason role. The 24-year-old certainly didn’t expect to be here — he scheduled his wedding for Sept. 28, figuring he’d be free when the minor league season ended.
For The Big Out: Roberto Osuna is Houston’s closer, but Ryan Pressly is the guy manager AJ Hinch will call in the most critical spots. The right-hander has dominated since being acquired from Minnesota last season thanks to a curveball with the highest average spin rate in the majors. The 30-year-old had knee surgery in August but returned Sept. 20 and has looked sharp.
Man In The Middle: With Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, Houston shouldn’t need much length from its relievers. Wade Miley got accustomed to unusual October usage last year with Milwaukee, and he or rookie Jose Urquidy will likely go to the bullpen. Don’t count out a relief look from Verlander, either.
For The Big Out: Even with one of baseball’s best and most versatile pitching staffs, the Rays went shopping at the deadline to get right-hander Nick Anderson from the Marlins. The 29-year-old rookie has struck out 41 and walked two over 21 1/3 innings since the deal.
Man In The Middle: Ryan Yarbrough has thrived following Tampa Bay’s openers the past two seasons, although he’s been used effectively as a standard starter down the stretch and might be Tampa Bay’s No. 4 man instead. Yonny Chirinos and Trevor Richards both have long relief experience, too. With Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Yarbrough all healthy, manager Kevin Cash might use his pitchers in surprisingly traditional roles.
For The Big Out: Australian righty Liam Hendriks completed a remarkable turnaround after being cut last year by locking himself into Oakland’s closer role this season. He credits the comeback to tarot cards and an energy healer named Rubi — “she’s phenomenal” Hendriks told The Associated Press this month — but it also helps that he’s throwing his fastball harder than ever.
Man In The Middle: Just like David Price with Tampa Bay in 2008, rookie left-hander Jesus Luzardo could have an outsized impact for Oakland despite limited big league experience. Ranked among baseball’s top starting pitching prospects, Luzardo has a 1.50 ERA in six relief appearances as a September call-up.
For The Big Out: After a few uneven seasons in San Francisco, Mark Melancon has returned to All-Star form in Atlanta. He’s improved his control and begun throwing harder since being acquired from the Giants at the trade deadline, supplanting struggling Luke Jackson in the closer’s role.
Man In The Middle: Max Fried made 30 starts during the regular season but likely won’t crack the postseason rotation. The left-hander is an enticing piggyback option after right-handed starter Mike Foltynewicz.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
For The Big Out: Last year’s deal sending slugger Luke Voit to the Yankees looked like a steal for New York, but Giovanny Gallegos has evened things out by becoming a bullpen anchor. The rookie right-hander has been excellent in middle relief, walking hardly anyone and holding opponents to a .168 average. His emergence has also lessened the loss of injured closer Jordan Hicks.
Man In The Middle: Andrew Miller was once the poster boy for October relief pitching, but the 34-year-old left-hander hasn’t been nearly the same pitcher in his first season with St. Louis. Manager Mike Shildt leans traditional, and extraneous starter Michael Wacha is probably the club’s best bet for multiple innings.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
For The Big Out: Kenley Jansen has a 2.08 ERA over the past six postseasons, but a season-long slump has made the 31-year-old a potential weak link for the two-time defending NL champs. Despite winning 106 games, Los Angeles lacks a reliable, shutdown reliever, and converted starters like Kenta Maeda or Julio Urias could be asked for key outs in short bursts.
Man In The Middle: Los Angeles has options for length, and it will likely need someone to follow 39-year-old Rich Hill in a potential Game 4. Rookie righties Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin appear to be battling for the final bullpen spot. Either would slot well behind the left-handed Hill.
For The Big Out: Washington hoped to lean on two-time All-Star Sean Doolittle, but he’s been responsible for six of the Nats’ NL-leading 29 blown saves. The club’s best chance in the late innings may be complete games from Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.
Man In The Middle: If the starters aren’t working deep, the Nationals are probably in trouble. Expect Scherzer to be a bullpen option late in series should Washington advance past the wild-card round.
For The Big Out: Josh Hader was the most-feared pitcher in last year’s postseason, with every managerial decision factoring if and when he might pitch. The left-hander is practically automatic for 6 to 9 outs, although he blew a critical save Saturday at Colorado and allowed a career-high 15 home runs this season.
Man In The Middle: Only two pitchers topped 130 innings for Milwaukee this year — Zach Davies and Chase Anderson — and both may be left off the playoff roster. Nearly everybody is going to be asked to cover multiple innings. Veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez in particular has taken well to recent long relief work.
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