Blue Jays 'pen is mighty

Lefty reliever Brett Cecil says he has learned to be a student of the game sitting in the Blue Jays...

Lefty reliever Brett Cecil says he has learned to be a student of the game sitting in the Blue Jays bullpen. (Reuters)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:18 PM ET

TORONTO - It was 1985, the Blue Jays were clinging to pennant hopes and Bobby Cox, then the manager, had watched salvation for the umpteenth time emerge from behind his bullpen door.

It was the season that Dennis Lamp went 11-0 in middle relief, Tom Henke arrived as a closer and Cox, pondering his team’s precarious situation, noted: “I do know a good bullpen makes a manager a lot smarter.”

That being the case, today’s Jays manager, John Gibbons, must rank as the smartest man in baseball.

The Jays bullpen has been unworldly. It ranks among the league leaders in numerous categories including possibly even, joked Gibbons, saving the manager’s skin — not to mention the team’s hopes of dragging itself back into contention in the ragged AL East.

With Toronto’s starting rotation in tatters through much of the season’s first two months, the bullpen piled up more innings than any other major-league team.

It was overworked. It was abused. It was a revelation.

“Saviours. It couldn’t get a whole lot worse. Did they save me? I don’t know,” chuckled Gibbons, this week. “Look, they’ve been tremendous. They’ve been beat up a lot and come back to do a great job.”

It is a crew that has been worked long and hard, such as on Wednesday night when Gibbons had Neil Wagner warming up in the fifth inning.

Starter Mark Buehrle was gone by the sixth.

Once on a pace to throw more than 600 innings — something only two major-league bullpens have been asked to do in all of baseball history — the starters have mostly, finally, begun to go deeper into games.

Good thing, too, because with 264 1/3 innings in the books after 70 games, the Jays bullpen is still on course to deliver close to 500 innings.

In most cases, that’s baseball suicide. Except that this bullpen has actually emerged stronger than when the season began. Stronger than anyone might’ve expected.

It has seen the revival of Brett Cecil. Steve Delabar has been a revelation; a 95-mph fastball sparking debate that he might be a closer in waiting. Meantime, he simply is tied among AL relievers in strikeouts and has a spiffy 1.75 ERA. Wagner and Juan Perez have been nearly untouchable since arriving from Buffalo.

“They’ve been huge,” said Gibbons, of his relievers. “Early on, there were times we had to pitch them all just to get through games. Then we had the revolving door with guys coming up. We had a tough start. But it’s stablilized now.”

From Lamp to Henke and Duane Ward in the World Series era, to the 2008 bullpen that featured B.J. Ryan, Scott Downs and Jason Frasor, Toronto has a history of dependable workmanship from the bullpen. That 2008 crew ranked as the best bullpen in the league and it included Jesse Carlson, who strolled to the rescue 69 times.

But this may yet prove to be the deepest, strongest relief corps ever to wear the Blue Jays crest.

“When we get a lead late, we feel good because we’ve got so many different options and combinations down there,” said Gibbons, whose team is 24-0 when holding a lead after the seventh inning — the only major-league team that can boast such an accomplishment.

The Jays have had good long and middle men such as Lamp. They have had dependable closers like Casey Janssen and Henke, and David Wells had his golden moments as a lefty early in his career. Ward was the best setup man in baseball for a time. But the ball has rarely been in better hands than it is now.

“Early in the season, the idea was to match up lefties against lefties, this guy against that guy, righties against righties but that kind of fell by the wayside because we had to step in and pitch multiple innings,” said Delabar. “But it actually made us better in the long run because now we don’t have situational lefties. We have lefties who can get righties and lefties out. So, it’s actually improved our bullpen in the way that we get used. We don’t necessarily have to match up guys anymore. It’s just go get these three guys out.”

More often than not, that is precisely what has happened with a bullpen that earned 16 of the club’s first 34 wins. Only knuckleball starter R.A. Dickey, with six, has more wins than Delabar, who is 4-1.

When Cecil retired Rockies’ Michael Cuddyer in the seventh inning on Wednesday night at the Rogers Centre, he set a club record, retiring 37 consecutive batters without allowing a hit. Not bad for a guy who lost his role as a starter, lost his velocity and wasn’t being counted on for much this season.

But this spring, he started to believe in a breaking ball, got his fastball back into the 90s, and became a student of the game in the bullpen.

“Our workload was pretty heavy in the beginning,” the bespectacled lefty said. “In essence, it almost helped me a bit to be able to get out there and throw and to have such a great start to the season to put me in the position I am now. It gave me a chance to get off to a good start and that everybody could see that.”

The bullpen, once a strange and foreign place, has become home.

“I didn’t know what to epxect. I knew I was going to feel better out of the bullpen,” said Cecil. “I just didn’t know how much better. I figured a lot of things out.”

A lot of that came from sitting next to Janssen and 16-year veteran Darren Oliver.

“They’re amazing to talk to,” Cecil said. “Casey really studies the game. I told him two weeks ago: ‘Wow, starting is way different than being in the bullpen.’ Since I’ve moved there, I’ve learned so much more about hitters. In the bullpen, you have to be student of the game, every pitch, because you might be facing that guy later in the game.

“As a starter, you might be on a three-game series and not even pitch against that team. You’re paying attention but you are not looking for the details that you do as reliever. If you’re in the bullpen, you might face the same team twice in a series ... it’s a lot different.”

Cecil’s results have been a lot different as well. Last year, he couldn’t get anyone out. Now he can’t help but get them out — putting up a stretch of 17 2/3 scoreless innings.

Short. Long. In between. Doesn’t matter the outing. Toronto’s bullpen has been near unhittable, not allowing an earned run the past 24 innings and just five earned runs in 17 games since May 31.

“You don’t necessarily go down there thinking: ‘Oh, gosh, we’re going to have to go make up six innings tonight.’ You go with the mindset that when the phone rings we’re getting our guys out,” said Delabar.

If there was concern about wearing down the bullpen, it has abated.

“Maybe there was some of that at the beginning,” said Delabar. “Although we lead the league in innings pitched, I’d say we are as fresh and sharp as any bullpen. We’re getting consistent work, but we’re not getting overworked.”

One of the reasons is the depth — such as on Wednesday when Gibbons used four pitchers for one inning each - forget the left-right matchups.

With Delabar, Wagner and Perez, this is now a bullpen that has some hard throwers.

And, it is versatile. Janssen is the unquestioned closer but several others from Cecil to Delabar — even Wagner, the closer at triple-A Buffalo — might be qualified, albeit untested.

As well, with four lefties — Cecil, Perez, Oliver and Aaron Loup — it makes it difficult for opposing managers to match up.

So, Loup has allowed one earned run in his last 14 games (0.53).

Wagner threw another spotless inning Wednesday and since he and Perez — who has begun his career in Toronto with 10 scoreless innings — joined the team, they have combined for an 0.44 ERA (one earned run in 20 1/3 innings). And, Cecil is throwing up all-star numbers.

“I don’t mind talking about it, but I know how hard it is to get picked so I’m not getting my hopes up,” Cecil said. “If I got picked, that would be great. But I’m just happy to be feeling good and pitching great.”

The most recent Toronto reliever to be named to an all-star team was B.J. Ryan in 2006.

On Wednesday, Cecil threw nine pitches — all for for strikes — to retire three Rockies.

“You gotta ride it when it’s hot,” said Oliver, who has been everything from a situational lefty to a closer in 17-plus major-league seasons. “Baseball is streaky like this. It’s a weird game.”

And nobody has witnessed more weirdness to start this season than the Jays.

When all around them fielders were dropping balls, when line drives off the bats of Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista were being caught, when Mark Buehrle couldn’t keep balls in the yard and J.P. Arencibia was chasing others to the backstop, it was the bullpen that kept Toronto in a position so that it now sits within spittin’ distance of a wild card.

“I would say most bullpens aren’t probably as deep,” said Oliver, “but to have a good bullpen you need a good closer. A good bullpen doesn’t mean a thing unless you’ve got someone to close the door.”

Janssen did that for the 16th time on Wednesday and, in his past 41 opportunities since becoming Toronto’s closer, he has 38 saves.

Pat Tabler, the former Toronto infielder and now a broadcaster says of Janssen: “He’s the 2013 version of Dennis Eckersley. He might not throw hard but he’s bing here, bing, bing, there. He’s for real.”

Eckersley wound up with 390 saves over 24 major league seasons. That isn’t to say Janssen will accumulate those numbers but the point is that he has a similar style. And, it is difficult to argue Janssen’s effectiveness.

Just as it is difficult to argue the effectiveness of a bullpen that is averaging more than 3 2/3 innings per game ... and, lovin’ it.

“We are putting together a pretty good run out of the pen and the season has been going pretty good,” said Delabar. “But those stats are an accumulation of what we did yesterday. As players, we have to focus on today because that’s all we can do. We go one game at a time and then we go on. We can’t predict what’s going to happen.”

Actually, it’s been very predictable. When it comes to the bullpen, it’s three up, three down and everybody go home.

FOR THESE RELIEVERS, IT WAS WORTH THE 'WEIGHT'

Jamie Evans for MVP?

So far all he’s done is rescue Steve Delabar from the scrap heap, found about eight miles per hour on Brett Cecil’s fastball, helped Casey Janssen recover from an aching shoulder and aided Dustin McGowan's comeback to the major leagues.

That's half of Toronto's bullpen.

“If I didn’t do that program I wouldn’t be here,” said Delabar, simply this week, of Evans’ weighted ball program. The trainer and strength and conditioning guru was hired recently as a consultant by the Jays.

It’s not difficult to understand the reasoning. His program seems to help pitchers avoid injury, as well as reduce time lost to injuries.

Three years ago Delabar was out of baseball and working as a teacher in Kentucky after fracturing his elbow.

Evans put him on a program that includes using weighted balls to strengthen muscles around the shoulder and elbow. Pitchers use various holds on the balls and go through their throwing motion without actually releasing the ball. “There is no cookie cutter program. It’s individualized,” said Delabar, who has become one of the AL’s most reliable relievers.

The workout routine seems to have the ability to increase a pitcher’s velocity while it is believed to help avoid injuries as well. Cecil began using the program during the offseason and went from throwing in the mid-to-high 80s to now consistently reaching 93 mph.

“It helped me tremendously,” said Cecil. “There’s one program to get the shoulder healthy ... another to increase velocity which is the one that I obviously chose.”

Delabar is also back to throwing in the 90s. “I appreciate every day. As the career goes, if things hadn’t fallen into place the way they had I’d be doing something different,” he said. “My perspectibve on the game might be different then somebody else’s. All I know is I don’t take anything for granted.”


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