Giants bullpen jells, excels after closer swap
WASHINGTON -- The Giants minimized fuss and maximized production when they switched closers in late June. The successful change largely accounts for their presence in October.
This is the kind of transition that can spoil a season if it doesn't work. But the Giants received more than increased efficiency from Santiago Casilla, who replaced Sergio Romo as the team's ninth-inning stopper. They also elicited improvement from Romo, who allowed two runs in his final 19 1/3 regular-season innings as San Francisco's setup man.
"It actually panned out pretty well," Romo said Thursday on the eve of the Giants' National League Division Series opener against the Washington Nationals (noon PT on FOX Sports 1). "Here we are in the playoffs, which is our goal, and we like our chances."
It's well-known that a strong, balanced bullpen turns a competent club into a champion. The Giants reaffirmed this truth in both of their World Series triumphs. Their relievers combined to yield three runs in 10 innings in 2010, then surrendered two runs in 11 2/3 innings in '12.
San Francisco's relievers appear ready to accelerate the tempo of another postseason march. Their 3.01 ERA ranked third in the NL, trailing Washington (3.00) and San Diego (2.73). The Giants didn't need their bullpen in Wednesday night's NL Wild Card Game as Madison Bumgarner blanked Pittsburgh on four hits, but the relievers know that they'll inevitably be summoned.
For instance, they're aware that Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who's renowned for handling his bullpen expertly, might deviate from his typical patterns and install a reliever at an unusual juncture. That's common in the postseason, when every inning is critical. Since Bochy occasionally does this during the regular season, his relievers won't feel uncomfortable if they're used differently. For instance, left-hander Jeremy Affeldt cited last Saturday, when he warmed up in the fifth inning -- about two innings earlier than he's accustomed to -- and entered the game in the sixth.
"We have to be ready to pitch at any time," said Affeldt, who recorded a personal-best 1.102 WHIP this season. "Our bullpen understands that, and I think that's why we've been successful in the playoffs."
It was essential for Romo to embrace this collegial approach after he blew three of five save opportunities, prompting Bochy to assign the closer's role to Casilla.
"My role doesn't change. My job doesn't change. I'm the closer of the eighth inning," Romo said. "Not one of us has to shine brighter than the other. We all know what we're capable of. We feel we have to have a good long guy for us to have a good short guy. We have to have a good short guy to have a good middle guy. We have to have a good middle guy to get to the closer. We do complement each other."
For Casilla, switching roles with Romo barely affected him. After all, he relinquished the closer's duties to Romo in 2012.
"The eighth and ninth innings are the same for me," Casilla said. "My comfort level ... it works out, you know?
Casilla, who converted 19 of 23 save chances while making 54 appearances this year, would be a nice complement for any staff. Among NL relievers, he ranked fifth with a career-best 1.70 ERA, tied for fifth in WHIP (0.857) and limited opponents to the sixth-lowest batting average (.177).
Giants right-hander Tim Hudson was already an established veteran with the A's in 2004 when Casilla made his Major League debut with that club.
"He had all the potential in the world -- a live arm and unbelievable stuff," Hudson recalled. When Hudson regards Casilla now, he sees a finished product: "He's a complete pitcher. He gets out there and commands the mound. Obviously his stuff has only gotten better."
While many relievers master one or two deliveries, Casilla has developed four useful pitches, due to beginning his professional career as a starter. He can neutralize hitters with a changeup, cut fastball, slider and curveball.
Casilla also mentally prepares himself to work two innings.
"It makes me more relaxed when I pitch only one," he explained.
One inning from Casilla tends to suffice for the Giants.