Mariners' bullpen could push them into postseason
Halfway through 2014 season, Seattle's relief corps leads Major Leagues in ERA
SEATTLE -- If the Mariners' bullpen had one blemish through the first 95 games of the season, it's that it wasn't able to squeak out a win when manager Lloyd McClendon chose to test it last week against the Twins.
The premise was simple: Let long reliever Tom Wilhelmsen start, with the hope he lasts three innings, then pick and use which relievers presented the most favorable matchups vs. Minnesota's lineup. By doing that, the Mariners could push ace Felix Hernandez back a day in the rotation and set him up to start the opener of a critical weekend series against the Athletics.
Wilhelmsen went 2 2/3 innings, allowing two runs (one earned) before five relievers combined to pitch the next 6 1/3 innings in Seattle's 4-2 loss.
But who could blame McClendon for trying six relievers from start to finish in what the Mariners' public-relations contingent dubbed "Johnny-All-Staff" day?
Seattle's bullpen entered the All-Star break leading the Major Leagues with a 2.39 ERA -- a first-half club record -- while holding opponents to an American League-low .211 batting average. In the past 21 games, it posted a 1.04 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings.
After getting off to a shaky start, 37-year-old closer Fernando Rodney leads the AL with 27 saves in 29 chances. He earned a late selection to the AL All-Star squad. Situational southpaw Joe Beimel hadn't allowed an earned run in 19 innings until Oakland's Nick Punto hit a solo home run off him in Sunday's 4-1 loss. That broke the longest active scoreless streak in the AL.
"I think he's one of the reasons our bullpen is as good as it is," McClendon said of Beimel, who is 2-1 with a 1.50 ERA in 32 games. "His numbers withstanding, what he brings to that bullpen is experience and gives it a calming effect down there."
Beimel, 37, was a non-roster invitee to Spring Training after he agreed to a Minor League contract in the offseason. He missed 2012 because of Tommy John surgery and spent 2013 in the Braves organization with Triple-A Gwinnett, going 1-2 with a 4.36 ERA in 30 games.
The setback didn't deter Beimel.
"I plan on pitching until I'm 50," Beimel said. "I figured that was a just a bump in the road."
There are surprises elsewhere.
A season after he lost his closer job, Wilhelmsen (1-2, 2.54 ERA) has rebooted his career in a long-relief role, pitching so well that McClendon said he is considering making the former bartender a spot starter.
Between an August 2013 trip to the Minor Leagues, Wilhelmsen was part of Seattle's bullpen last season, which finished 14th in the AL with a 4.58 ERA.
"It's different than the past few years, but then again it's the same, because it is the bullpen and we're always kind of wacky and a different little family, a different little pod down there," Wilhelmsen said.
Example: That was just a few hours before Wilhelmsen helped 62-year-old pitching coach Rick Waits become an Internet sensation. Wilhelmsen has garnered attention before home games when he dances to the beginning of DJ Snake and Lil Jon's rap song, "Turn Down for What."
"I took a swing dance class when I was like 12 years old," Wilhelmsen said. "That's the only history I have in dancing. It's more just for fun. Maybe it's interpretive."
For the few who haven't seen it, what transpired in right field was a two-man dance that in no way resembled a samba.
"Rick, I guess, thought a baseball was coming. It scared the [heck] out of the guy," reliever Danny Farquhar (1-1, 2.88 ERA) said. "He realized what was going on. And [thought], 'Well, my heart's going already. I might as well just keep dancing.'"
If the bullpen keeps pitching like it did before the All-Star break, the Mariners will be in better position to hold onto to the second AL Wild Card spot. And it certainly helps that they aren't reliant on one guy.
Other than Lucas Luetge, recalled last week for the "Johnny-All-Staff day," the only relievers with an ERA above 3.00 are Brandon Maurer and southpaw Charlie Furbush, though Furbush has been better of late, posting a 2.31 ERA with 12 strikeouts and no walks in his last 15 appearances.
Others have thrived in their defined roles. Right-hander Dominic Leone (2-1, 1.83 ERA) is second behind Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances in strikeouts among rookie relievers. Unheralded 25-year-old Yoervis Medina (4-1, 2.23 ERA) is having a breakout season, leading the team in holds. Even Maurer, who looked overwhelmed early in the year as a starter, forced McClendon to go to an eight-man bullpen when he added a few miles of speed to his fastball and regained his confidence after a stint with Triple-A Tacoma.
Since being recalled in late June, Maurer hasn't yielded a run in 10 2/3 innings of relief work, a span of six games.
"I've never been a part of a bullpen like this," Beimel said. "Every single guy out there can get the job done, and that's just fun to watch."
Adam Lewis is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.