All eyes now on Dodgers’ stellar relief pitchers

Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Doug Padilla writes about the Dodgers' improved bullpen and their role in the team's success this season.

The chicken coops of baseball sit some 340 to 400 feet away from the action, often behind a fence in a fully confined area with its occupants mindlessly scratching at the dirt while biding their time.

Water to share, seeds to eat, an adjacent and smaller covered area to get away from the outside commotion, the comparisons go on and on.

Welcome to a major league bullpen, where relief pitchers gather in a flock, seek higher ground to get warm and then bolt from the scene one at a time at the moment a crack appears in the gate.

The most common similarity of all is that relievers, like chickens, have always established a pecking order. Low leverage, high leverage and closer is the hierarchy. Other identifiers include set-up man, specialist, flame thrower. The “fireman” is from a bygone era.

The Dodgers are among a growing number of clubs who appear to be working on a newer era. A mixed bag of interchangeable parts is the goal. Multitools, with an ability to handle all tasks in one versatile vessel.

Evan Phillips essentially has been the closer for two years now, as evident by his team-leading eight save opportunities this season and his 27 to top the team last season. Yet, the closer term is used sparingly when his role is discussed. It has been the same when it comes to anointing a set-up man.

Don’t be that guy, be every guy.

And now the concept of the do-everything man has taken on an even greater importance with current injuries to Phillips (hamstring), Joe Kelly (shoulder), Brusdar Graterol (shoulder) and Kyle Hurt (shoulder). A foursome of high-leverage guys marooned at low tide.

There were two save situations on the Dodgers’ most recent homestand, after Phillips went on the injured list, and Alex Vesia picked up his first save of the season in one of them and Daniel Hudson finished off his second save in the other.

The Dodgers already have witnessed five different pitchers pick up a save in the first 49 games after 11 different pitchers picked up a save last season.

The injuries will now force guys like Nabil Crismatt, J.P. Feyereisen and Gus Varland into more prominent roles. Two of the three were expected to depart with the returns of Blake Treinen and Walker Buehler this week, but they remain with a key stretch of 13 games in 13 days starting Friday at San Diego.

“That’s something that we have to be ready for,” Dodgers manager Roberts said of the bullpen when it comes to the lengthy stretch of games ahead. “We play some really good teams so we’re going to need really good starts. We might drop somebody in at some point to kind of give the starters an extra day. But yeah, bullpen management will be huge.”

The Dodgers will likely stay on rotation the first five days of the road trip with Tyler Glasnow, James Paxton and Walker Buehler set to pitch at San Diego this weekend.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Gavin Stone are likely to start in the opening two games at San Francisco next week, although not necessarily in that order. Yamamoto could always move back a day to better mimic his once-a-week schedule in Japan. Everybody will get one extra day of rest with Thursday’s off day.

From there, decisions will have to be made. Roberts is likely to go with his fourth bullpen game of the season in the road trip finale Wednesday in the Bay Area.

At that point, arms could be taxed, creating a burden on a group of relievers that was expected to have its issues when the season began. The Dodgers traded a pair of key left-handed relievers in the offseason in Caleb Ferguson and Victor Gonzalez and didn’t replace either.

Vesia, who unexpectedly struggled last season with a 4.35 ERA and a short demotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City following consecutive standout campaigns, is back in form just as the Dodgers needed a dependable lefty most. Vesia’s 1.56 ERA in 17 appearances and 1.154 walks/hits per nine innings is more in line with the pitcher he was two seasons ago.

And while he has only been back for two outings after some cracked ribs and a bruised lung from a line drive in spring training, not to mention shoulder issues the past two seasons, the right-handed Treinen looks nasty as ever at age 35.

“I had that in spring, I was pretty dang close (to normal) before I got hit,” Treinen said. “I think perspective is about my biggest thing. It’s gaining perspective that I’m 35 and still have a chance to play on a team that is so incredibly talented and has so much depth. I’m really grateful to have an opportunity still.”

Phillips isn’t available to return until May 19 at the earliest. But the positive news surrounding his injury is that it isn’t arm related.

“It’s maybe a frustrating time because I feel like I was in such a good spot on the mound and certainly want to keep that consistency going,” said Phillips, who has eight saves in his eight chances with a 0.66 ERA in 14 overall appearances. “I’ll do my best to keep that locked in while I’m down and hopefully back soon.”

Kelly’s return figures to be trickier with shoulder issues. Graterol hasn’t even started throwing yet, while Hurt has been moved to the 60-day IL. It leaves Phillips as the reliever expected to return first.

“Fortunately, it’s about as mild as it can get and the road to recovery is smooth and simple,” Phillips said. “We’ll just take it day-by-day for now and see how we progress.”

Day-by-day is Roberts’ goal as well, as he hopes his starters can pitch to their norms for the time being. It would give his brood of relievers the best chance for success through the tight upcoming window of time. They have a high standard to uphold after all, with the second-best bullpen ERA in the National League through Thursday: 3.24.

Sure, relievers, like chickens, can lay an egg at times. But eggs are shaped like ovals and ovals are akin with zeroes. It’s all in how you look at it and all eyes will be on the coop for the next 13 games.

“Because our starters have gone so well, we’re in a good spot,” Roberts said. “Whatever the schedule lays out we’re good with but yeah, any off day (like Thursday) is a good day.”