Relief roles satisfy different demands
Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Joe Beimel was sitting in the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen one night a couple of seasons ago, watching an opposing team's hitter leave the on-deck circle and walk to the batter's box. The phone rang.

"You've got this guy," Beimel was told. Nobody had even told him to warm up.

"I got up on the bullpen mound and start firing," Beimel recalled. "They had the catcher walk out and talk to the pitcher. Then (manager) Joe (Torre) came out and walked to the mound very slowly and talked to him. And then I was in."

[IMGR][/IMGR]Beimel, now the lone left-hander in the Pirates' relief corps, chuckled as he thought back to that surprise outing. He got the out, then caught his breath when he got into the dugout.

"Those are the ones you'd like to try to avoid," Beimel said, "but it comes with the job."

Closers have a high-profile and high-octane role, which is why they get those big paychecks. But, in the opinion of many pitchers, the toughest job in the bullpen belongs to the middle relievers.

"You're going to come in with guys on base and you're expected to get out of it, not just get three outs," Beimel said. "Closing is an important job, and there's a lot of pressure that comes with it. But you do know when you're going to pitch. You usually come in, start an inning and if you give up any runs they're going to be your own and not somebody else's."

A middle reliever must be ready for anything at any time. He never knows if, when or how long he will pitch in a game. He might warm up once or twice on a given night but still not leave the bullpen. Or, as in Beimel's case, he might get practically no time to prepare for an outing.

"It can be chaotic at some points, but you have to find your routine in that chaos," left-hander Daniel Moskos said. "It's tough to just snap your fingers and you're in the game 10 (warm-up) pitches later."

Chris Resop pitched as a starter, reliever and closer in the minor leagues, and now works the middle innings for the Pirates.

"I think being a mop-up (reliever) is one of the hardest roles because you're not getting constant work," Resop said. "I've been a mop-up guy, so I know you can sit for 10 days, two weeks sometimes. It is so hard to stay sharp. You can throw all the bullpens you want, but it's totally different in a game -- the adrenaline, the pressure, everything goes up a notch."

It's an adage in baseball that the final three outs can be trickier than the first 24, which is why some in the industry say the closer's job is the hardest.

"We are an organization that subscribes to (the idea) that the ninth is a little different than the eighth," general manager Neal Huntington said. "There is something special about getting the final three outs, and we respect that."

It doesn't even have to be a save situation for the inning to be electric. On May 7, Daniel McCutchen got a taste of it when he got the final three outs in a 6-1 victory over Houston.

"I definitely had a lot more adrenaline going on -- and that was with a five-run lead," McCutchen said. "Closers get paid more than middle-relief guys, so I'd think closing would be the tougher job."

When he was with the Washington Nationals, Joel Hanrahan struggled in his first go-round as a closer. He stayed in a middle-relief role initially after being traded to the Pirates, but this spring was named the closer.

"Both jobs are hard," Hanrahan said. "But those last three outs are really hard to get."

Middle relievers spend the game in the bullpen, waiting to hop on the mound as soon as the phone rings. Hanrahan, who pitches almost exclusively in the ninth inning, takes a different approach.

Hanrahan sits in the dugout in the first inning. He spends the next couple of innings in the clubhouse, watching the opposing hitters on TV and stretching with the trainers. In the fifth inning, he finally heads out to the bullpen.

"You don't want to get too amped up too early," Hanrahan said. "You kind of push things back a little bit. But when it comes to getting the hitters out, your mentality doesn't really change."

Moskos was the closer last season at Double-A Altoona; this year, he got one save in eight games at Triple-A Indianapolis. But he worked in middle relief after the Pirates called him up April 30. Moskos made five outings -- twice in the eighth inning of road losses, once in the seventh inning of a 10-3 loss and twice in the sixth inning of three-run losses at home.

Moskos was sent back to Indianapolis on Sunday when righty Evan Meek was activated off the disabled list.

Meek began the season as the primary setup man for closer Joel Hanrahan. But manager Clint Hurdle indicated that Meek might, at least for a few games, get more work in the seventh inning.

"A lot of that is how Clint and (pitching coach) Ray (Searage) think it best matches up for us in the seventh inning," Huntington said. "The highest-leverage situation in a game might be in the seventh inning. They might like a matchup of one of our pitchers against two of their hitters in the sixth or eighth inning. It's ultimately how Clint feels he can win that night's game."