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The Late Shift

Dodgers' bullpen, revamped on the fly after early-season setbacks, has turned into a reliable force at the end of games

October 03, 2006|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

October can be a cruel month for pitchers who are unaccustomed to playoff pressure, even those destined for Hall of Fame greatness.

Seventeen years and 333 career victories does little to dull the memories for Greg Maddux, the Dodgers veteran whose first taste of the postseason was about as sweet as Steve Bartman's last playoff foray into Wrigley Field.

Maddux, then a 23-year-old for the Chicago Cubs, started Games 1 and 4 of the 1989 National League championship series against San Francisco, going 0-1 with a 13.50 earned-run average, giving up 11 runs and 13 hits, including two homers, in 7 1/3 innings. The Cubs lost both of his starts and the series.

"I scuffled with it my first time," Maddux said. "I didn't worry about the game. I worried about all the other stuff. I took a beating

Was it a learning experience?

"No," Maddux said, "it was a humbling experience."

The Dodgers can only hope, as they prepare for Wednesday's division series opener against the New York Mets in Shea Stadium, that their revamped and revitalized relief corps gleans a lesson from Maddux.

As good as the bullpen has been -- and it has been a revelation, with closer Takashi Saito bringing a Game-Over flare to the ninth inning, hard-throwing rookie Jonathan Broxton productive in a setup role, journeyman left-hander Joe Beimel enjoying a breakthrough season and converted starter Brett Tomko adding solid middle relief -- there is one key statistic that could be of concern.

Combined playoff experience of the Dodgers' top four relievers: 7 2/3 innings in three games, all by Tomko for Seattle in 2000.

Combined hours of sleep Dodgers coaches expect to lose in October worrying about the bullpen: zero.

"They've been battle-tested for the last month," Manager Grady Little said, "because every game we've played has been a playoff atmosphere."

Indeed, after losing 13 of 14 to fall 7 1/2 games behind in the NL West in late July, the Dodgers responded to a lengthy stretch of must-win games by going 41-19, including a 9-1 season-closing burst to win a wild-card berth.

And the bullpen played a key role, with Saito going 24 for 26 in save opportunities and limiting opponents to a league-low .177 average, Broxton posting a 1.45 ERA over his last 29 outings, Beimel giving up one run in 11 2/3 innings of his last 12 games and Tomko going 2-1 with a 3.77 ERA in 29 games since moving to the bullpen in late July.

Not bad, considering not one of the four was in the Dodgers' bullpen to open the season.

"It's been a work in progress all year," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said of a bullpen that lost players to injury (Eric Gagne, Yhency Brazoban), trades (Danys Baez) and non-performance (Lance Carter). "People earn their roles. Saito, Broxton and Beimel have stepped up, and Tomko was willing to go to the 'pen and give us a veteran presence in the sixth and seventh inning."

Saito, 36, who took over as closer in June, has done it with a lively fastball, a nasty slider and the kind of steely nerve that allowed him to pitch out of a runner-on-third, one-out jam in the ninth inning of Friday's 4-3 win in San Francisco.

Broxton, converted from starter to reliever in the minor leagues after Gagne was hurt in 2005, has done it with an overpowering fastball and sharp slider that has led to 97 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings, and a quiet confidence that belies his 22 years.

Beimel, 29, has done it with a blend of fastballs and breaking pitches that induce groundball outs and an excellent pickoff move that could come in handy this week against Mets speedster Jose Reyes.

And Tomko, a 33-year-old right-hander, has done it with the same stuff and a new mentality, packing all the energy of his six-inning starts into one- and two-inning bursts.

"What's amazing is there's not one guy in the bullpen now who was there to start the year," Tomko said. "It's been completely revamped. Guys are doing jobs they weren't expecting to do, and doing them well.

"I don't think you could have any more pressure than we had last week, when we knew we had to win five of six games to have a chance, and everyone did what they needed to do."

They must maintain that focus and edge in the playoffs, which can be tougher with the screaming headlines in the New York tabloids, the huge crowds in hostile stadiums, and the weight each pitch carries, especially in the later innings.

"I'm going to handle it like the regular season -- just take it one pitch at a time and worry about throwing strikes," Broxton said. "It's exciting having the chance to do this with veterans who have been there before. Hopefully they'll guide us and help us get through it."

Beimel, who spent most of his first three big-league seasons with Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, has never been to the playoffs before, at any level, "so I'm not sure what to expect," he said. "But I don't usually get too riled up about stuff. I try to be low key, do my job, concentrate on the game. I'm going to do what I've done all year and not put any added pressure on myself."

The problem is, no matter how composed a player is, no matter how much he treats it like the regular season, it's tough to know how he'll react to the pressure of a playoff game until he's thrust into the middle of one.

And for a late-inning reliever -- remember Byung-Hyun Kim's Yankee Stadium meltdowns in the 2001 World Series? -- there is virtually no margin for error.

"The only difference in October is you can't go get 'em tomorrow," Maddux said. "You run out of tomorrows pretty quick."

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