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What a relief: Importance of bullpens keeps growing

The one-strike-away Nationals are taking no chances this time. Hello, Rafael Soriano.

To the nation's capital goes Soriano, an elite closer for three clubs over the past four seasons. If it's three months too late to appease the faithful still reeling from a Game 5 loss to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, you can't second-guess Washington's good intentions.

In the international pastime these days, you never can have enough late-inning arms.

It wasn't always this way. There was a time, before the advent of five-man rotations and analytics, when bullpens were staffed primarily by aging veterans hanging on for big league paydays and untamed thoroughbreds such as Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan trying to harness their fantastically erratic stuff.

If a starter didn't go nine innings in those days, he apologized to his manager as one of the old guys or kids came on to finish the job.

We have arrived at a point where bullpens are on close to equal footing with starting rotations in the Major Leagues' scheme of things. Pitching is still the name of the game, but no longer is it all about who starts. The finishers are gaining annually in stature -- and pay.

The Nationals led the Majors in wins with 98 in 2012, owing a measure of their success to a bullpen that ranked seventh with a 3.23 ERA and had a 75-percent success rate in save attempts. Sadly, what too many folks will remember is that NLDS meltdown that moved the Cards to the NL Championship Series and D.C. to tears.

The Reds' relief corps was the best last season, leading the Majors with a 2.65 ERA. Aroldis Chapman converted 38 of 43 save opportunities with a 1.51 ERA.

With Jonathan Broxton having re-upped with the Reds as a free agent, Chapman once again is being considered for the rotation -- leaving skeptics to wonder why you'd mess with such success.

"He could very well be my best starter and my best reliever," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of Chapman, whose triple-digit heat accounted for 122 punchouts in 71 2/3 innings. "He would probably prefer to start, but last year we were preparing him as a starter, and there was much debate about whether to send him to the Minor Leagues to start or not. Emphatically, some of us wanted him in the big leagues, and he ended up being the setup man and ended up being a closer. So we'll have to see.

"Right now, we have six starters, and Chapman could possibly be one of them or could be our best closer. It's a pretty good problem to have."

Bruce Bochy, manager of the World Series-champion Giants, has picked up on a trend this winter as he's surveyed the game's landscape.

"I think clubs are really trying to build up their bullpens, in particular, to improve their pitching staffs," Bochy said. "It just seems like teams have gone more toward pitching and defense. I know that's what we wanted to do, and it's worked well for us."

Known primarily for their dominant starters, the Giants would not be champions for the second time in three years without the superb work of a bullpen that was enhanced measurably in the postseason by the temporary addition of Tim Lincecum.

The loss of closer Brian Wilson, so critical to the team's 2010 championship run, to Tommy John surgery after just two appearances could have been a staggering blow in 2012. But Sergio Romo's transition from setup artist to closer was so remarkably seamless that the Giants can feel secure even if Wilson, a free agent, departs.

Romo set up for Santiago Casilla before taking over the ninth inning in late August. A 28th-round Draft pick in 2005, Romo yielded just two runs in his final 21 regular-season appearances and one run in 10 2/3 postseason innings. The World Series ended with Romo catching Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera looking at a third strike in Game 4 in Detroit. His three Fall Classic saves were nine up, nine down.

"Sergio, he's a guy you want out there," Bochy said. "I know this is a play on words, but he saved us all year. When we lost Wilson, Casilla got the lion's share of saves. Then we went by committee, and eventually Sergio took over. We had the right guy."

The best relievers are physically and emotionally resilient, with short memories. After blowing a save for Jake Peavy in late April 2005, Trevor Hoffman -- the saves king before Mariano Rivera succeeded him in 2011 -- greeted a reporter new to the Padres beat.

"You won't see that happen again for a while," Hoffman vowed. His next blown save came almost exactly five months later, on Sept. 26, ending a run of 34 straight conversions.

In 1969, the single-season saves record held by Jack Aker, who saved 32 games for the Kansas City A's in 1966. Francisco Rodriguez has held the record since 2008 with 62. In 2012, there were 14 pitchers with 32 or more saves.

"There's an ever-growing importance of the seventh, eighth and ninth innings of games," Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "A lot of times starting pitchers look at a goal of 200 innings as a benchmark of a good season. With that, there's nine more outs left in a game. If you have lockdown guys for the seventh through the ninth, it gives you a good shot at doing something special.

"I still think there's a huge emphasis on the starting rotation. You need those guys to get deep in the game to keep your bullpen from being overused. The last three outs are the tough outs, but setup guys like Scot Shields [previously] with the Angels and Scott Proctor [previously] with the Yankees, who can work the seventh and eighth and get it to your closer, are invaluable."

The two surprise teams of 2012 -- the Orioles and Athletics -- were driven by their bullpens. Remarkably, Baltimore won 93 games with only one double-figure winner in the rotation: rookie Wei-Yin Chen.

Similarly, the A's, capturing the American League West with 94 victories, had a staff-high 13 wins from rookie starters Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker. Oakland manager Bob Melvin was wheeling out an all-rookie rotation down the stretch after losing Brett Anderson to injury.

"Those young guys the A's had starting did a great job of controlling counts and getting deep in games," Butcher said. "Their bullpen wasn't overtaxed, and it really came through for them."

The Athletics' balanced relief corps, led by Grant Balfour and Ryan Cook, had the fourth-best ERA (2.94) among Major League bullpens. Only the Reds, Braves (2.76) and Rays (2.88) were better.

One can imagine how the relief-strapped Angels felt watching Fernando Rodney emerge as the AL's best closer for Tampa Bay (48-for-50 in save attempts) after falling on his sideways cap for two seasons in Anaheim. Going back to his Detroit days, Rodney has had Rockies-like peaks and Grand Canyon valleys, underscoring the often unpredictable nature of relievers.

The Tigers, with Jose Valverde going from 2011 perfection (49-for-49) to 2012 struggles, managed to reach the Fall Classic despite a 3.79 bullpen ERA, 18th in the Majors. Starters Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer can cover up a lot of blemishes.

"In the game of baseball, it's always been said, pitching stops everything else," Texas manager Ron Washington said after the A's snuffed his club's run at a third consecutive AL West title. "They stopped us."

The Rangers were rock solid with veteran Joe Nathan nailing down 37 of 40 save tries. The overall bullpen ERA was 3.42. The Angels came in at 3.97, 22nd in the Majors, with 22 blown saves.

To remedy the situation, the Angels signed former Phillies closer Ryan Madson, coming off an idle 2012 while recovering from Tommy John surgery with the Reds, and Sean Burnett, a dynamic southpaw in Washington.

With Madson and Burnett joining Scott Downs, Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri, a breakout star after arriving from San Diego last season, the Angels believe they have the depth to relieve t he pressure on a rotation that has been remodeled behind ace Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton will be new on the scene.

"There are so many situations where we didn't hold leads the way we needed to last season," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "And I think going into this year, if everyone hits the ground running as far as our bullpen, we're going to hold leads at a much better rate. And that's going to definitely influence where we finish our standings."

The Rangers eventually can unleash three proven closers at the back end of their bullpen, with free-agent signee Joakim Soria and holdover Neftali Feliz both coming back from Tommy John surgery.

Soria had 160 saves in five seasons as the Royals' closer, and the Rangers are prepared to wait for him. Feliz's surgery in early August makes him questionable for 2013, but Alexi Ogando is another proven late-inning hammer, and is also capable of starting. Robbie Ross provides lefty balance.

Nowhere in 2012 was the impact of those last three innings more evident than in Baltimore.

The Orioles' bullpen, featuring closer Jim Johnson and his 51 saves, had the fifth-lowest ERA in the Majors (3.00), converting 75 percent of its save opportunities. Manager Buck Showalter's relievers compensated for a rotation that ranked 21st with a 4.42 ERA, delivering fewer innings (5.8 per outing) than all but eight starting staffs in the Majors.

Holding off Baltimore in the AL East by two games and eliminating the Wild-Card Orioles in a taut AL Division Series, the Yankees got 6.2 innings per start from CC Sabathia and Co., fourth best in the game. In Mariano Rivera's absence, that saved wear and tear on a Soriano-led bullpen that logged 101 1/3 fewer innings than that of Baltimore.

Only the Rockies, with their three-inning-starters experiment, and the Royals required more innings from their bullpens than did the Orioles.

Johnson was supported by Darren O'Day, Pedro Strop, Luis Ayala, Troy Patton, Kevin Gregg, Matt Lindstrom, Steve Johnson and converted starters Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter. Showalter's showstoppers were responsible for the team's 29-9 record in one-run games and incredible 16-2 mark in extra innings.

The Orioles realistically can't expect this year's bullpen to match that. It's time for the starters to provide some relief.