The Dodgers bullpen made up by Kenley Jansen, Ronald Belisario, Paco Rodriguez,… (Justin K. Aller / Victor…)
Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and a surging offense aren't the only reasons the Dodgers are among Major League Baseball's hottest teams. And the rest of the credit can't go only to dual aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
The overshadowed Dodgers relief corps has quietly been a key factor during the team's ascent from laughability to respectability.
When Manager Don Mattingly replaced Brandon League with Kenley Jansen as closer on June 12, he shuffled and reorganized the bullpen. It took awhile — about 10 days — for relievers to find comfort in their new roles, but they've since been a force as the Dodgers won 17 of 22 to pull to within 2 1/2 games of the National League West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks.
Ronald Belisario and Paco Rodriguez claimed the seventh and eighth innings. J.P. Howell went from anonymous innings-eater to lefty specialist. Young flamethrowers Chris Withrow and Jose Dominguez stepped in for struggling veterans Peter Moylan and Matt Guerrier.
League excluded, active Dodgers relievers have a 1.12 earned-run average since June 22, giving up only six runs in 481/3 innings. Rodriguez, Howell and Belisario have combined to throw 25 consecutive scoreless innings.
"Everybody knows their roles and that's the biggest thing," Rodriguez said. "That's why things are going so well, because everybody is going out there and doing their job."
When League was closing, that was not the case.
"To be truthful, guys were just struggling," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "They were in a bad place, probably mentally, and not getting the job done."
The big switch — Jansen for League — seems to have shuffled the deck into winning hands.
Howell was asked to face at least five batters in 14 of his first 29 appearances. In his 10 since June 22, he has done that once. He's now free to focus on lefties, who are batting only .162 against him.
Belisario and Rodriguez pitch on consecutive days less frequently — in part because the Dodgers are getting more quality outings from the starters and also because of the recent success of their fellow relievers.
Bullpen catcher Rob Flippo sees the difference in the way Belisario's sinker is diving. Mattingly sees it in Belisario's velocity and fastball command.
"When you start getting into that bullpen early two or three days in a row, you're on thin ice," Mattingly said. "You don't know who's going to hold up or not. … When Beli's rested, he's coming out at 96 or 97 [mph] at times. When he's not, it turns into 93 or 94 and gets flat."
Dominguez and Withrow, though rookies, have been trusted to get big outs. Withrow threw three innings in the Dodgers' 7-5 14-inning win over Arizona on July 10 — a game Howell said Withrow "pretty much won" for the team.
Dominguez's triple-digit fastball and developing changeup have already drawn comparisons to those of another slender Dominican.
"When I first saw him, I thought, 'There's my little Pedro [Martinez].' Without a doubt," bullpen coach Chuck Crim said.
The bullpen's walks-plus-hits-per-innings-pitched (WHIP) mark of 1.06 since June 22 is better than any team's season-long mark, and its .212 opponent's batting average is second, slightly behind that of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
League is the only relief pitcher whose earned-run average has risen during that span. Meanwhile, Jansen is six for seven in save opportunities.
That the bullpen is operating more closely as a unit, building camaraderie, can be seen even when its members are not pitching. Dodgers relievers have recently taken to walking across the outfield grass before each game together, and they usually sit in a group during the game too.
"The key was sticking together during a tough time," Howell said. "That was crucial especially in this environment, with the fans and the pennant race we're trying to win."