Behind the 'Backs
Even when closer Matt Mantel was out, Arizona was relieved by Its bullpen
Arizona righthander Mike Morgan has pitched more than 2,600 innings for 12 teams in his 20 seasons in the majors, and not once, he says, has he iced his right arm. His postgame routine is about as common as a surgeon eschewing a pre-op scrub. "I don't throw 100 [mph] like Randy Johnson, but after the game he's wrapped up in ice," says Morgan, 40, who keeps his arm in fighting trim with pushups and exercises designed by arm guru Dr. Frank Jobe. "I take a shower and go home."
The only icing Morgan has done this year has been in the late innings, protecting leads while regular closer Matt Mantei spent 30 of Arizona's first 42 games on the disabled list. Through Sunday, Morgan, who had made only 71 career relief appearances and had three saves before this season, was 5 for 5 in save opportunities and 1-0 with a 2.76 ERA. He is the most pleasant surprise in a bullpen that before the season was thought to be the Diamondbacks' weak spot, even with Mantei healthy. At week's end Arizona had the best relief ERA (3.19) in the National League and was 32-4 when it led after seven innings, a big reason that it had a five-game Western Division lead over the Dodgers and the majors' second-best record.
The contribution of Morgan, the fourth-oldest player in the majors, has been matched by that of the youngest Diamondback, 21-year-old Korean import Byung-Hyun Kim. Inconsistent as a rookie last season, when he was 1-2 with an ERA of 4.61, Kim has blossomed this year, terrorizing hitters with his submarine delivery, a fastball in the low 90s, a hard slider and a pitch he calls an upshoot, which he flings from inches above the dirt and sends rising through the strike zone. He had five saves, a 154 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 23? innings. "You think that pitch is going to sink," says Padres outfielder Eric Owens, "but the ball rises, and he has that slider to set it up."
Kim's sudden dominance is the result of improved command and increased aggressiveness. As a rookie he pecked around the perimeter of the plate and walked 20 in 27? innings; through Sunday he had yielded 10 walks and had attacked hitters, going to three-ball counts on just 18 of the 98 batters he'd faced. In early May he struck out eight in a row over four appearances, part of a longer stretch in which he K'd 14 out of 19. "He was a little overwhelmed last year," says Arizona catcher Damian Miller. "This year he's calm and collected."
Morgan, who won 13 games in 25 starts for the Rangers last year, signed with the Diamondbacks in the off-season, thinking he would pitch in long relief and grab the occasional spot start. When Mantei went down with biceps tendinitis before die season, Morgan drifted into the more high-profile bullpen role. "I've been a nervous wreck," he says. "When the phone rings down there, I'm up out of my chair throwing before anyone answers it. When I was a starter, I was nervous on the days I pitched. Now I'm nervous every day."
His performance has belied that anxiety. Working efficiently—he had thrown an average of just 14.3 pitches per inning at week's end—Morgan had held batters to a .214 average and had usually been in and out of the game before hitters could figure out his arsenal of sinkers, sliders and split-fingers. "We didn't know what he could do in the bullpen since he'd never really been down there," says Diamondbacks pitching coach Mark Connor. "Maybe he can pitch for a few more years in this capacity."
The emergence of Morgan and Kim also eased the pressure on Mantei, who returned to action on May 23 and had one save in three outings in the first week back after his second stint on the disabled list. "They made it easier for me to get my work done and not worry about rushing back too soon," says Mantei. "They did their job, and hopefully now that I'm back, we can all fall into our comfortable roles."
Behind the Language
Unusual Run of Walk-offs
No, you're not the only one sick of walk-off. Yes, it has become the most overused term since the Church Lady was oozing catch-phrases on Saturday Night Live. Well, walk-off-weary fans can at least take solace in this fact: When it comes to walk-offs—games in which the home team is victorious in its last at bat—this season really has been special. According to the Elias Sports Bureau there were 87 in the 729 games through Sunday, an average of one every 8.4 games. Last season there were 202 such wins, or one every 12.0 games. In the past five seasons the biggest year for walk-offs was 1997, when one of every 10.5 games ended in that fashion.