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Starters aren't the only stars this season. Meet the lights-out San Diego bullpen
It was time, Padres relievers Heath Bell and Mike Adams decided, that baseball's best bullpen had its own nickname. Two weeks ago, in the clubhouse before a game, Bell and Adams, the most senior members of San Diego's relief corps, distributed T-shirts designed by Adams's tattoo artist and emblazoned with the handle they had chosen for their unit: THE PEN-ITENTIARY. It may not have the zing of, say, the Nasty Boys, but Bell and Adams still pretty much nailed it: The group has had National League offenses under lockdown all season long.
The biggest surprise in baseball this season has been the Padres, who have spent most of the first half atop the NL West and led the Giants by 4½ games through Sunday. San Diego's offense ranked 14th in the league in runs scored, 14th in slugging and 13th in home runs—yet the team owned the best run-differential (+65), in large part thanks to a bullpen that led the NL with a 2.49 ERA and an impressive strikeout rate (1.10 K's per inning). "This team lives and dies with low-scoring games," says reliever Luke Gregerson, "and we take pride in knowing the team can count on us."
With righthanded flamethrowers Gregerson, Adams and Bell working the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, respectively, the Padres were a league-best 16--10 in one-run games at week's end and had 17 wins in which they had scored three runs or fewer. "They have one of the best bullpens I've ever seen," says Mets rightfielder Jeff Francoeur, whose team, over a three-game series in mid-June, struck out 10 times and scored one run in eight innings against San Diego's relievers. "It seems like everyone throws 95 and has a big-time out pitch."
In his second season as the team's closer Bell, 32, a pear-shaped 250-pounder with a mid-90s fastball and a looping 12-to-6 curveball, had cashed in 21 saves in 24 opportunities and allowed just one home run in 32 2/3 innings. The 31-year-old Adams (40 K's in 36 innings and a league-high 21 holds) has flummoxed hitters with his hellacious cutter. The MVP of the staff, however, has been Gregerson, 26, a future closer whose preposterous 51-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best in baseball. "To have a guy lock down that seventh inning has been huge for us," says pitching coach Darren Balsley. "He's pitched in as many high-pressure innings as anyone."
A 28th-round pick in 2006, Gregerson began to emerge as a rookie late last season, when he did not allow a run in 23 of his final 25 appearances. His best pitch is a slider that he throws more than 60% of the time; it's nearly unhittable because it "appears like a fastball for a longer period of time than most sliders, before it breaks," says Balsley. "Any hitter who has seen the scouting report knows it's coming, but they can't do anything about it."
The Padres' bullpen would make them formidable in a short series in October. Twenty years ago the Nasty Boys, the Reds' famously churlish band of relievers, led their team to an improbable World Series title; San Diego believes the Pen-itentiary can do the same. "This is a very unselfish group of guys," says Balsley. "They understand their roles, and they know that when they each do their job, together they're as good as any group out there."