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Rays, Tribe hoping 'pens will be saving grace

Masterson may be relief ace in hole for Francona in AL Wild Card tilt

CLEVELAND -- Hey, Joe Maddon, how's that Rays bullpen looking? Have you hugged your relievers today?

"When I wake up in the morning, I think about the bullpen," the manager said on Tuesday afternoon. "When I'm riding the bike, I'm thinking about the bullpen."

Maddon could have been speaking for every other Major League skipper. There's no part of their job more challenging and more important than managing their bullpens.

It's not simply knowing how to work the late-inning matchups, although that's obviously part of it. It's also keeping every reliever fresh. That is, tracking how often they warm up and watching them work, and listening to what they have to say about their aches and pains. Like a lot of other aspects of managing, it comes down to trust and open lines of communication.

Which brings us to Wednesday night's American League Wild Card game between two teams that have had a bullpen problem or two in recent weeks. If this game at 8 p.m. ET on TBS is decided by the bullpens, which team has the advantage?

Is it the Indians, who may lean on their Opening Day starting pitcher in the late innings? Or is it the Rays, who say they're feeling good about their bullpen after hitting a bump or two during the season?

Cue the confident managers.

"I have a ton of faith and confidence in all these guys," Maddon said.

Cleveland's Terry Francona spoke from a similar script.

"We have the guy we sent to the All-Star Game," he said. "I think it's going to end up being a good thing."

If Francona does use his Opening Day starter, Justin Masterson, to close out the Wild Card Game, it may end up being unorthodox, creative and effective. It's just not the way he drew things up during Spring Training. Back then, Chris Perez was his closer.

But Francona removed Perez from the role after a couple of tough recent outings. The Indians have used veteran Joe Smith late in games recently.

However, Masterson offers an intriguing option. The Indians are trying to build up his innings as he recovers from a pulled muscle in his side that kept him on the disabled list for three weeks in September.

Since returning last week, Francona has used Masterson three times for a total of 3 2/3 innings. Masterson has been as good as ever, allowing one hit and striking out seven.

The Indians could use Masterson as a starter if they keep going in these playoffs. For now, though, they may need him to take the ball late in games. This is a new role for Masterson because his next career save will be his first. Until late this season, he'd made one relief appearances in the last three years.

But because Masterson is such a special talent, he may end up solving a problem that surely is keeping Francona up at night.

"The way we viewed it is that when Masty got hurt, we lost our ace," Francona said. "Then when Masty got healthy, we acquired a guy that can pitch out of the bullpen multiple innings so we went from feeling like we lost one of our key guys to gaining a huge weapon. And that's the way we kind of plan on using him."

If the Indians get, say, six innings from rookie starter Danny Salazar on Wednesday, Francona might ask Masterson to take the ball in the seventh and then go as long as he can.

Few teams could run a more accomplished pitcher out to potentially shut down a game. Francona had to adjust on the fly because only the Red Sox and Astros converted a lower percentage of save opportunities than the Indians (63 percent).

Maddon has a much more stable arrangement. Fernando Rodney had 37 saves in the regular season, and Joel Peralta has been solid as the setup man.

But the Rays almost lost a 7-0 lead last Sunday, and Rodney's eight blown saves were tied with three others for the second most in the Majors.

And there's the workload. The Rays' bullpen combined for 109 innings in September, second most in the Majors.

Still, Maddon feels good about his guys, naming at least five relievers he's comfortable putting in games in which the Rays are tied or have a lead.

"The guys who can pitch even or ahead are really, really important to victory," Maddon said. "I think we have five, six or maybe even seven guys who are even or ahead guys."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Cleveland Indians, Tampa Bay Rays, Justin Masterson, Fernando Rodney