Sunday, March 18, 2001

Reds relievers as nasty as ever




By Chris Haft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MYERS, Fla. — The bullpen, known as the pitching staff's “back end” in baseball slang, must step to the front for the Reds to thrive this season.

        Fortunately for the Reds, they might have the National League's deepest and best relief corps. The Reds also know relievers can tow them to a title, because it has happened before.

        The 1990 season remains the prime example. No Reds starting pitcher won more than 15 games. No position player amassed more than 25 home runs or 86 RBI. Yet this club led the National League West wire to wire and swept Oakland in the World Series. The relief trio of Norm Charlton (12-9, 2.74 ERA), Rob Dibble (8-3, 11 saves, 1.74 ERA) and Randy Myers (31 saves, 2.08 ERA), renowned as the “Nasty Boys,” was a virtual lock with a lead from the sixth inning on.

        Cincinnati's current bullpen lacks the Nasty Boys' colorful nickname but shares their effectiveness. Danny Graves is a premier closer. Scott Sullivan is baseball's

        most prolific setup man. Mark Wohlers has regained most of the command he displayed as Atlanta's closer in the mid-1990s. Rookie John Riedling might have better stuff than any of them. Left-hander Dennys Reyes, who's destined to return to the bullpen after starting this spring, has a devastating assortment of pitches. So does Scott Williamson, who'll be back in the bullpen if he's not in the rotation.

        This year's Reds appear thin in the rotation, with Pete Harnisch the only proven veteran. The lineup looks strong but injury-prone. But the Reds contend they can challenge in the NL Central by sustaining mere competence in those areas and letting the bullpen do the rest.

        “Usually, it's a luxury if you have three guys you can count on in that back end,” Reds manager Bob Boone said. “With our depth and quality, I think we have a great advantage. I expect it to be that way; soon, we're going to find out whether it is that way.”

        The composition of Cincinnati's bullpen hasn't changed since the end of last year, when the Reds' 4.01 ERA ranked third in the NL behind Los Angeles (3.76) and Milwaukee (3.84). But Boone should be able to use his relievers much differently than predecessor Jack McKeon, mainly because more can be trusted.

        McKeon had to move Williamson to the rotation. For most of 2000, McKeon also didn't have Wohlers, who was still seeking his form, or Riedling, who was in the minors. So McKeon frequently used Sullivan and Graves in multiple-inning stints. This explained why Sullivan has pitched more innings than any other reliever in the majors since 1997 (419 3/4) while Graves worked unusually hard for a closer in 1999-2000 (202 3/4 innings).

        “Not to say that last year there wasn't confidence in anybody else,” Graves said. “But when things were going well, Jack kept going with what he was doing.”

        Boone contends he'll be able to summon Graves at the traditional juncture for closers — just the ninth inning or, at most, with two outs in the eighth. Sullivan, Riedling and Wohlers should bridge the gap between the starter's departure and Graves, with Reyes available to face especially tough left-handed hitters.

        “Roles usually help your relievers,” Boone said. “You'd like to get them into some kind of pattern that has success connected with it.”

        Said Sullivan: “History has declared that if you can get people out, you're going to pitch. But the more, the merrier. We're going to have a tremendous bullpen, I think. So it might be tough for me to reach 50 innings.”

        If Williamson and/or Reyes, stay in the rotation, the bullpen still qualifies as strong and deep.

        In fact, excess could be a welcome problem for Boone. Though Graves collected 30 saves last year during an All-Star season, Boone said the Reds have “four or five guys” good enough to close.

        And though most clubs use certain relievers to preserve leads and others when behind, Boone indicated that, if he divided his relievers, he'd do so to keep them fresh, not to discriminate.

        “You could almost have two different teams in your bullpen,” he said. “It's an attractive thing, because of the quality.”

        Though Boone would prefer not to use Sullivan for two- or three-inning stints, he knows that will prove necessary on occasion.

        “The toughest thing in managing is dealing with the bullpen,” Boone said. “In the course of a season, you're (thinking) either, "Man, I'm short (of fresh relievers) today' or "I've got too much gas in the tank; I've got to get this guy some work.' There's two ends of the spectrum, and they change in a second. You get a guy like Sullivan, and it's such a luxury for you. You always have gas in your tank. In saying that, that's why you want to protect him, so you have that luxury all the time.”

        Nothing protects the bullpen more than durable starting pitching. But because the Reds' rotation is saddled with inexperience (Rob Bell, Williamson and candidates Chris Reitsma and Jared Fernandez) or previously sore arms (Harnisch, Elmer Dessens and, Osvaldo Fernandez), Boone can't count on that.

        “You'd like to teach your starters that the game is on them. In other words, "Here's the ball, you're going to get a decision out of this,'” Boone said. “You train them not to look for help. But it all depends on your team. If our strength is the 'pen, we won't have to do that as much.”

        Blessed with bullpen depth, Boone can be expected to call upon his relievers early.

        “If you don't get them out in the sixth inning, you usually lose,” he said. “So you better get them out in the sixth. ... At some point in the course of a game, there's probably one out you have to get that's more significant than the last one.”

        With these Reds, that task will often fall to the bullpen.

        “You're not as worried about saving the 'pen,” Boone said, “as much as them saving you.”

       



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