At the first hint of stress or distress from a starting pitcher, as certain as Jack Armstrong ate his Wheaties and Mikey liked his Life, Cincinnati Reds manager David Bell will be on his way to the mound to take the baseball away.
He is doing so much that his nickname might soon be Captain Hook II. That would be in honor of Big Red Machine manager Sparky Anderson, the original Captain Hook, so named because he was so quick to hook a starting pitcher early in a game.
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How did that work? Pretty well, right. That’s because Anderson had Pedro Borbon, Clay Carroll, Will McEnaney and Rawly Eastwick in his bullpen.
And so far what Bell is doing is working because both the starters and the relief pitchers are at the top. The rotation on fourth in the majors with a 3.44 earned run average and the bullpen leads the National League and is fourth in the majors with a 3.23. Overall, the entire staff ERA of 3.35 leads the National League and is second in the majors.
In accomplishing this, the rotation has pitched 176 innings and the bullpen has soaked up 208 innings.
Is there a danger, though? With so much usage, so much stress, will the relief pitchers be physical and mental wrecks by mid-August, unable to raise their arms high enough to eat the post-game ribs?
Bell admits it is something constantly and utmost on his mind.
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“That is always a concern and it is our focus to keep guys healthy and strong for the whole year,” said Bell. “When you look at baseball, the greatest challenge we have is the long grind of the season, how long we have to stay sharp and stay healthy.
“The bullpen is such an important part of our team, any team, we look at that every day,” Bell added. “It is always on my mind to use guys properly and balance things to win every single game, but doing it in a way that is best for the individual player. And I feel good where were are now, but I have to keep that long term vision in my mind.”
Although Bell keeps a leash on the starters and maintains a bullpen parade, he does not overuse them in any game and he does not use them three or four days in a row.
A prime example was Wednesday night with Amir Garrett. He came into a tie game, 5-5, in the 10th and retired the only hitter he faced with one pitch with the go-ahead runs on third base.
“All we’re worried about is coming in and getting our job done, no matter what time of the game it is,” said Garrett. “It doesn’t matter for me, I just like coming in whenever there is trouble.
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“We do a good job in the bullpen of staying ready because we never know when the phone is going to ring.”
“We’re professionals and we understand what we’re doing,” said Garrett. “Dave Bell is really smart at what he does and we trust him a lot.
“People don’t understand the game,” said Garrett. “I see that stuff, too, like, ‘Why doesn’t he use Garrett longer in game?’ David Bell is a smart guy. I told him when he first came in here, ‘I want to pitch as much as I can.’ People don’t understand if you go two innings you will be down and done the next day, maybe two days. I pitched to one batter on Wednesday, I’m ready Thursday.
“People don’t understand that aspect of baseball,” Garrett added. “They think you can pitch three innings then come in the next day and pitch. You will not recover. I just let ‘em talk and I laugh.”
Catcher Tucker Barnhart is the one who meets Bell at the mound when he emerges from the dugout to take the ball from one pitcher and hand it to another, mostly three or four times a game.
“That’s their job and they are prepared for it,” said Barnhart. “What we hear most in here from them is, ‘I want more.’ Those guys are prepared both physically and mentally. With the scouting reports and their bodies, they’ll be fine.
“In my opinion, there are a lot of guys coming in, used a lot, but they are not throwing multiple innings,” Barnhart added. “They come in to face a couple of hitters. Most of them are in limited roles, so I don’t think it is dangerous by any means. They are throwing amazing and preparing really well. It is a joy to catch them.”
One of the guys who would take the ball every day, if asked, is Jared Hughes, the entrepreneur of the ground ball via is nose-diving sinker.
“The way he (Bell) uses us keeps us on our toes and alert because at some point in the game I better be ready,” said Hughes. “We are all as prepared as possible when (bullpen coach) Lee Tunnell comes up to one of us and says, ‘Get stretched and get ready.’”
“Not me,” said Hughes. “You know me, as a sinker-baller I get better as I get a bit fatigued. If we are being used a lot, which we are and it is a good thing, it is best for us to be honest and tell them how you feel every day. We preach that amongst us and everybody has to be honest.
“If somebody does need a day off, they can take a day to rest, but so far this season nearly everybody is good to go nearly every day,” said Hughes.
Hughes feels that August won’t find the bullpen savaged and ravaged, “Because that’s where the honesty comes in. By August we’ll be fine because we have protect ourselves. And you have to keep working hard in the weight room and doing your running — just take care of yourself.”