The most surprising part of the Diamondbacks’ bullpen implosion Sunday may have been that it happened at all.
In a sign of the progress the relief corps has made during the tenure of manager Bob Melvin and pitching coach Bryan Price, the D-Backs’ bullpen now makes news when it has difficulty, not when it closes out another victory.
After several seasons of scrambled roles and intermittent success, the D-Backs have come to believe a game is basically over if they take a lead into the seventh inning.
Credit closer Jose Valverde, set-up men Brandon Lyon and Tony Pena, situational left-hander Doug Slaten and long relievers Juan Cruz and Edgar Gonzalez for the good vibes.
“They’ve been lights out all year. It’s been a nice, secure feeling,” outfielder Eric Byrnes said.
“It’s been reassuring since Day 1,” first baseman Tony Clark said. “Any time you can turn a ball game into a six-inning game, you’re putting yourself in pretty good position.”
Even after losing a four-run lead for the first time this season Sunday, the D-Backs are 52-4 when they lead after seven innings and 59-3 when they lead after eight, a large reason they enter a series in Florida today with a three-game lead in the NL West.
Valverde, whose secure work as the closer has enabled the other relievers to settle in around him, has 35 saves, second in the National League.
“If Jose has a tough time and somebody has to come in for him, then you are changing things back and fourth,” Clark said. “Our 7-8-9 (inning relievers) have been set all year. The level of confidence we have is a direct result of the success they have had.”
Lyon, who began the 2005 season as the closer before an elbow injury cost him the middle three months of the season, and Pena are tied for third in the NL with 22 “holds,” a statistic that measures the effectiveness of set-up men and is calculated the same way as a save.
Slaten’s ERA, 2.45, is the best of the relievers, and Cruz is limiting right-handed hitters to a .169 batting average. Newcomer Joe Kennedy, a second lefty, has not given up an earned run in two appearances.
The success likely plays off the ability of the starters to go deep into games, too, leaving bullpen arms fresher.
While the D-Backs (67-52) have played the most games in the major leagues, the bullpen has thrown the fewest innings in the NL, 342, while leading the majors with 24 victories and 38 saves.
“Every guy takes the ball and does his job,” catcher Chris Snyder said.
It has not always been that way.
Lyon had 14 saves before his injury in May, 2005, and when he went down the D-Backs turned to Brian Bruney and Valverde in that role, all three finishing with at least 12 saves.
Valverde entered spring training in 2006 as the closer but could not hold the job and was sent to the minors at midseason, the D-Backs this time utilizing Jorge Julio and Pena, whom the D-Backs believe has closer’s stuff.
“It’s something we’ve definitely struggled with in the past, the issue of the bullpen,” first baseman Conor Jackson said. “They’ve really stepped it up.”
Valverde is holding opponents to a .184 batting average, fourth among NL closers. Righties are hitting .151 against Pena, who has induced 11 double plays, second among NL relievers.
“We just have that same attitude every time — those are our guys to get,” Slaten said of the bullpen’s philosophy. “We’ve been very solid. We’ll bounce back from (Sunday’s loss). That hasn’t been the norm all year.”
Closing the door for the D-Backs
The Arizona bullpen has been anchored by these three relievers
Jose Valverde 1-4, 2.98, 35 saves (second in the major leagues)
Brandon Lyon 6-3, 2.82, 22 holds
Opponents are hitting .194 with runners in scoring position and two outs
Tony Pena 5-2, 2.41, 22 holds
Opponents are hitting .188 against him