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Competition for closer's role heating up

Bradley, Hirano and Boxberger in the mix
Special to MLB.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- All three Arizona closer candidates were in action over the course of a 48-hour period over the weekend, with Archie Bradley throwing an inning of relief against the Reds on Sunday and Yoshihisa Hirano and Brad Boxberger throwing in "B" games on the back fields on Saturday and Sunday.

It's the biggest position battle still in play for the D-backs, and manager Torey Lovullo was quick to identify the characteristics he's looking for as he determines the back of the bullpen roles.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- All three Arizona closer candidates were in action over the course of a 48-hour period over the weekend, with Archie Bradley throwing an inning of relief against the Reds on Sunday and Yoshihisa Hirano and Brad Boxberger throwing in "B" games on the back fields on Saturday and Sunday.

It's the biggest position battle still in play for the D-backs, and manager Torey Lovullo was quick to identify the characteristics he's looking for as he determines the back of the bullpen roles.

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"They're going to be in a game when we're going to be protecting a lead, or perhaps a tie," Lovullo said. "So, you're looking at a little bit of mound presence, stuff, and then late action."

Boxberger is the only one among them with significant experience closing games at the Major League level, saving 41 games for the Rays in 2015 before injuries cost him over half of his last two seasons. Hirano has the most experience overall, with 156 saves over eight seasons in the Japan Pacific League after converting from a starter. And Bradley is the most familiar, posting a 10-12 record in 34 starts for the D-backs in '15 and 2016, while making 63 relief appearances with a 1.73 ERA in 2017.

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"We're 10 days away," Bradley said of his spring preparation. "For me, knowing I'm on the team, this is really the time to try and lock in and get your stuff to where if the season were to start tomorrow, you know that you can get guys out."

Bradley became a reliable setup man in 2017, but as he prepares to potentially take on the closer's maximum intensity role, he is trying to get into the game-on-the-line mentality in Cactus League games.

"You can't simulate it, but your mindset can be the same," he said of the ninth-inning environment he imagined when pitching in the sixth inning on Sunday. "With the runner on third, that's the winning run. That's the way I approach that. I know the intensity isn't going to be the same, but my mindset and the pitches I'm trying to make are along the same -- 'hey, this is the game-winning run, you can't let this guy score.'"

By contrast, Boxberger -- who says he feels the best he's felt in years, "like my young self" -- takes spring innings in stride, getting his work in, and waiting for Opening Day to tap into the intensity.

"It's not my first camp, so I know what I can do against any hitter in the league," Boxberger said. "The intensity of in-season games and Spring Training are never going to actually correlate, because there's nothing like a big league game. Until you get under the lights and get in a big league stadium with the crowd going and the intensity of a real season game, you're never going to repeat it."

Video: ARI@MIL: Boxberger retires Yelich to end the 4th

Lovullo has monitored the candidates closely, diligently crossing the complex to evaluate their makeup. He missed Boxberger on Sunday, but got a good report on his no-hit, no-walk, three-strikeout inning.

"It was a very, very clean, easy inning, and stuff came out hot," Lovullo said. "A lot of late action on his secondary stuff. Those are things that we're looking for out of him, and the same thing with Yoshi. We want to make sure that they can deliver quality pitches and not get rattled or fazed in any situation when men get on base.

"I know Archie very well, and he checks all those boxes for me. Archie's a little bit different. He's aggressive with his fastball, but I think the mound presence speaks for itself."

The biggest challenge for Lovullo may be getting to know Hirano. He's seen Boxberger from the opposing dugout, and he became a fan of Bradley's bullpen work last season, but Hirano, who has never pitched in the Major Leagues before, is a clean slate for Lovullo.

Video: ARI@CHC: Hirano completes 1-2-3 inning with lineout

"I want to get familiar with him and his body language and what he looks like at all times," Lovullo said. "I get excited to watch him pitch. Things are coming together for him very, very nicely. His stuff has continued to rise and show improvements from each outing, which is to be expected."

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com.

Arizona Diamondbacks, Brad Boxberger, Archie Bradley, Yoshihisa Hirano