Uneven in regular season, bullpen cruising in October

October 9th, 2023

ARLINGTON -- From the moment he stepped foot on a Major League mound, has had an uphill climb.

In his MLB debut on May 15, he faced the eventual 104-win Atlanta Braves. The first batter he faced in the big leagues was potential NL MVP Ronald Acuña Jr., who took a six-pitch walk to open the game. Everything since then has been a bit of a roller coaster, as Bradford has shuffled between Triple-A Round Rock and the big league club.

He was named the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year after posting a 3.63 ERA across 14 starts. But when he’s been up, his role hasn’t been totally clear. He had a 6.95 ERA in eight MLB starts, but a 2.82 ERA in 12 relief appearances as Texas tried to find a place for the young lefty.

But with everything Bradford has had thrown at him this season, the 25-year-old has taken it all in stride. So it’s almost no shock that in the Rangers’ 11-8 win in Game 2 of the ALDS against the Orioles, Bradford delivered with the poise of a seasoned vet.

The lefty tossed 3 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of struggling Texas starter Jordan Montgomery, stabilizing a bullpen that’s been in need of it all year long.

“What a job he did,” Rangers manager Brue Bochy said. “The momentum was starting to switch there, and he came in, and he's pounding the strike zone very well, with all of the pitches, working all quadrants. He's so prepared. This kid, we brought him up, and he's handled everything we've thrown at him, from starting, using him in relief, high-leverage situations -- he just handles himself so well. For a rookie, it's been really impressive.”

Bradford said it was no different than any other outing, but it’s hard to ignore the stage on which he was able to perform. The sold-out crowd at Camden Yards was rocking with every pitch, attempting to will the Orioles back into the game.

Bradford kept them out of it.

“I know I was definitely nervous,” Bradford said after a brief hesitation. “Max Scherzer said to some of us younger guys, he said, 'Postseason baseball is different. If you're a high-adrenaline pitcher, then come in and use the crowd as motivation. If you're more of a baseline guy, try to keep it mellow, almost be one step below that, because the crowd and the environment is going to bring you up.'

“So I tried to be more calm, if that makes sense, than I normally would, and just kind of let the crowd and everything else move the body and get it going.”

As the Rangers ride a four-game postseason win streak back to Arlington, the bullpen has bent, but hasn’t yet broken.

Even with Bradford’s quality outing in Game 2, things still got a little interesting in the bottom of the ninth, when Brock Burke -- making his postseason debut -- allowed a walk and a hit with one out, and was promptly removed for José Leclerc, who was pitching on back-to-back days.

Leclerc surrendered his first run of the postseason when Aaron Hicks hit a three-run homer one batter later, cutting the Rangers’ lead to 11-8, but Leclerc quickly secured a lineout and a strikeout to end the inning and secure the win.

Burke became the only Rangers reliever to give up more than one run so far this postseason. Bradford, Aroldis Chapman, Josh Sborz and Will Smith have yet to allow a run, while Leclerc and Dane Dunning have allowed one each. In 14 2/3 innings this postseason, the bullpen has allowed 10 hits and six walks (1.09 WHIP), with 16 strikeouts. Texas relievers have allowed only four runs -- including two home runs -- while posting a 2.45 ERA.

There have been close calls, but the Rangers continue to slam the door each time they're given a chance.

“Our bullpen has really done a nice job,” Bochy said. “To be honest, yeah, it's been a challenge all year. Mike [Maddux] and I have discussed this bullpen on a daily basis, trying to keep things in order. At times, we've had it in order. Other times, we've had to try to patch it up. But lately, we have not just one or two guys that we can go to. We have some really good options, guys that we're comfortable using in high-leverage situations.”

The Rangers finished the regular season 30-for-63 (47.6 percent) in save opportunities. Only one game so far this postseason -- the series opener of the ALDS in Baltimore -- has been close enough to even present a save chance.

But the bullpen can’t always rely on 11 runs from the offense or seven scoreless innings from a starter, like it got from Montgomery in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series in St. Petersburg. The Rangers are just one win away from their first trip to the ALCS since 2011.

In order to get there, they’ll likely need the bullpen to come through one more time.

“Really, there's nobody down there I wouldn't feel comfortable using,” Bochy said. “You saw us bring [Bradford] in yesterday. We'll bring in anybody. So I think we're sitting as well as we have been in the bullpen all year with the health and how they're throwing the ball and their confidence.”