Pair of Rafaels in 'pen propel Indians to postseason
Posted: Wednesday September 19, 2007 1:08PM; Updated: Wednesday September 19, 2007 2:22PM
When you think of the Indians these days -- if, that is, anybody outside of Northeast Ohio spends any time thinking about the Indians at all -- you might consider their 290-pound lefty ace and Cy Young candidate, or the American League's ERA leader, or maybe some guy named Pronk, or the team's star switch-hitting catcher or its heartthrob of a center fielder.
What few people think of is middle relief. But without their superb setup men, Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez, no one, not even anyone in the Greater Cleveland Metropolitan Area, would care a spitball about the Indians right now. No one has been more important to the Indians, no one counted on more in the most knuckle-cracking times of the game, than the two Rafaels.
"We use [Betancourt] and Raffy Perez when we need them, in the absolute pivotal moments," says the Tribe's well-considered general manager, Mark Shapiro. "Without a doubt, the three guys on the back end of our bullpen [closer Joe Borowski has an AL-leading 41 saves] have been integral in our success."
A shutdown bullpen is a major change of pace for the Indians, who had one of the worst group of relievers in the game last season. The Cleveland 'pen managed a league-low 24 saves and blew a league-high 23 saves in 2006. But Betancourt, a 32-year-old Venezuelan right-hander who didn't throw his first major-league pitch until he was 28, and Perez, a 25-year-old lefty from the Dominican Republic in his first full season in the bigs, have changed that and helped to put the Indians just days away from an AL Central division title and a trip to the postseason.
These guys haven't been merely good this season. They've been dominant, probably the most potent righty-lefty setup duo anywhere. The numbers scream it:
Perez is second in the AL among relievers with a 1.41 ERA. Betancourt is third at 1.48. (Seattle closer J.J. Putz leads the league with a 1.36 ERA.)
Betancourt is third in the league in allowing inherited runners to score. He's allowed fewer than 10 percent -- just three of 31. Perez has let only six of 36 score.
Opponents are hitting just .172 against Perez (third in the AL), and just .184 against Betancourt (fifth).
Right-handers are hitting just .155 against the righty Betancourt. Lefties are hitting only .107 against the lefty Perez.
Perez has allowed only four of the first batters he's faced (out of 40) to reach base. Betancourt has let eight (out of 62) of the first batters on board.
Among pitchers with at least 40 innings of work, no one -- not Putz, not Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, not the Yankees' Mariano Rivera -- has a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Betancourt, who whiffs nearly nine hitters for every one he walks. Betancourt, by the way, pitches with a metal plate and six screws in his elbow.
Perez hasn't given up a run in his last 12 games and has an 0.82 ERA in the second half.
Both Rafaels have fastballs that regularly reach into the mid-to-upper 90s and hard breaking pitches that are, judging by those numbers, nearly unhittable. Perez has a nasty sinker, too. The dominance of Betancourt and Perez has given Cleveland manager Eric Wedge the luxury of keeping Borowski in a traditional closer's role (in 62 appearances this year, he has entered the game earlier than the ninth inning only once) and thrust the two Rafaels into the most high-leverage of game situations.
Borowski chalks up the saves. But it's Betancourt and Perez who often save the day.
The Cleveland bullpen works, too, because of the team's rotation. No team in baseball has pulled more innings out of its starters this season than the Indians. The team's hefty lefty ace, C.C. Sabathia, and rookie Fausto Carmona (who leads the league with a 3.07 ERA) both have pitched more than 200 innings apiece already. Getting a lot of innings from the rotation allows Wedge to cut down his options in the bullpen and not have to mess around with a bunch of other so-so relievers in an attempt to constantly plug holes.
"Most teams have a mishmash of guys back there that they fit in as they can," Shapiro says. "Getting three guys back there is key."
The Indians don't stick with any hard, fast rules on using their main men out of the bullpen. Betancourt, sixth in the league in innings pitched among relievers with 73, rarely gets more than two days off in a row. He pitches on consecutive days a lot, and he has been in for more than one inning 24 times in his 62 appearances. Perez, who wasn't called up from the minor leagues until May, normally gets at least a day or two off, but he's logged more than an inning 25 times in his 40 appearances.
Still, because of all the innings that the starters put in, the Indians' bullpen, as a whole, is probably fresher than most at this point of the season. Betancourt is sixth in the league in innings pitched among relievers, but no one else in the 'pen is in the Top 25.
The Indians, it would seem, are set up perfectly for the postseason. Sabathia and Carmona are arguably the most dangerous duo in the game. The bullpen, if not the best in the league, is certainly flirting with the best. (Among playoff hopefuls, the Indians' bullpen, overall, is second in ERA only to Boston's.)
The lineup, in some ways, has been disappointing, especially because of a down year from Travis "Pronk" Hafner. But heartthrob center fielder Grady Sizemore has re-energized the team since his return to the leadoff spot after a short time out (the Indians are 19-5 since Sizemore got his groove back), catcher Victor Martinez has improved defensively and continues to rake (he is, according to Shapiro, the "emotional and performance leader" of the team) and the Indians, after two wins against the Tigers this week, have whittled their magic number for clinching the AL Central down to five heading into Wednesday's matinee at The Jake.
Clevelanders couldn't ask for a better run into the postseason than what they're getting this month. The Indians, who haven't been to the playoffs since 2001, are 12-5 in September. More than 41,000 fans saw the Tribe beat the Tigers on Tuesday night at Jacobs Field. The Indians are, again, the talk of the town.
And if nobody outside of the Cleveland is talking about the Indians or their two stellar setup men quite yet, it's really OK. October is coming. We'll have plenty of time to talk then.