Image credit: (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — In recent years, teams opting to throw bullpen games has become an increasingly common occurrence across baseball.
Historically, a bullpen game was a last resort to be used only when a team had no healthy, rested starting pitchers available. Recently, however, the idea a team can get better results using eight or nine different pitchers, all with different styles, arsenals and arm angles, than it can throwing a back-end starter has gained increased traction in front offices.
In theory, it sounds good. In reality, it’s almost always a failing proposition when it counts most in the playoffs.
The D-backs became the latest team to have a bullpen game blow up in the postseason as the Rangers pounced on their array of middle relievers for an 11-7 win in Game 4 of the World Series. The Rangers lead the series three games to one and can wrap up their first championship with a win in Game 5 on Wednesday.
The Rangers feasted on D-backs mid-leverage relief quartet Joe Mantiply, Miguel Castro, Kyle Nelson and Luis Frias to turn it into a rout within an hour of the first pitch. The American League’s highest scoring offense exploded for 10 runs in the first three innings, all with two outs, as the D-backs pitching plan fell to shreds.
“We’ve had it before and we’ve had tough days when we face a bullpen day,” Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien said. “But the good thing about it is you may find one or two arms that don’t have their best stuff. So we definitely pounced on that opportunity in the second and third inning.”
The Rangers scored five runs in the second inning and five more in the third, becoming the first team in World Series history to score five runs in consecutive innings.
Each of the D-backs’ first four pitchers allowed a run. Like hyenas pouncing on a wounded gazelle, the entire Rangers lineup got in on the action.
Semien ripped a two-run triple in the second inning off Castro and a three-run homer off Frias in the third. Corey Seager launched his third home run of the series and second in as many nights with a monster 431-foot, two-run homer to right-center off Nelson in the third. Josh Jung doubled and scored in the second and singled and scored in the third. Nate Lowe, Jonah Heim and Leody Taveras all reached base and scored. Travis Jankowski had a single, double, two runs scored and two RBIs in just those two innings alone.
All five runs in the third inning were officially unearned because of an error by first baseman Christian Walker, but it hardly mattered. The Rangers squared up everything and bashed the D-backs relief corps into submission.
“I think Mantiply did a good job coming in there and attacking us,” Semien said. “But once they took him out, there’s a chance that a couple guys may not have their best stuff. And that’s what happened.”
By the time the third inning was over, the Rangers led 10-0, the D-backs had burned four pitchers and the sellout crowd was out of it, lulled to sleep by the turnstile of relievers and deflated by the Rangers explosion.
“The challenges are to get the right matchups and get the right pieces in place,” D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said. “We felt like we did that. We just didn’t execute. You could see what happened. They had their top three hitters have three at-bats before the bottom of our order had one at-bat. That’s unacceptable.”
The outcome was disheartening for the D-backs, but it was also in line with what typically happens in bullpen games in the later rounds of the postseason.
Including Tuesday, teams have averaged nine hits and seven runs allowed in the last five instances a bullpen game was used in an LCS or World Series.
In Game 4 of this year’s National League Championship Series, the D-backs threw a bullpen game and surrendered eight hits and five runs. It took a ninth-inning rally off Phillies closer Craig Kimbrel for the D-backs to overcome the deficit and pull out a crucial victory.
In Game 4 of the 2022 NLCS, the Phillies opted for a bullpen game and surrendered eight hits and six runs against the Padres. Their offense bailed them out, scoring 10 runs to win a high-scoring affair.
The Braves opted for consecutive bullpen days in Games 4 and 5 of the 2021 World Series rather than use established starter Drew Smyly, who went 11-4, 4.48 that season. Rookie lefthander Dylan Lee, making his first career start, failed to get out of the first inning in Game 4. Fellow rookie lefthander Tucker Davidson, who had pitched only three innings since June—all at Triple-A Gwinnett—opened Game 5 and failed to hold an early 4-0 lead in the potential clincher as the Astros sent the series back to Houston.
Time and again, choosing to start a game with a stream of middle relievers, who are often the least impactful pitchers on a staff, in the most important games of the year has proven to be an ineffective strategy.
““I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of it during the season,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “It’s being done a lot. But I understand if you don’t have a starter to fit in that slot there, you have to adapt to your club.
“I’m not saying it’s not a good thing. You’re in a World Series. You’ve got to do what you can to win a ballgame.”
The D-backs, in their defense, didn’t have many other great options. Rookie righthander Ryne Nelson, their fourth starter most of the season, had a 5.31 ERA in 29 appearances (27 starts) and had not started a game since Sept. 17.
Then again, it was Nelson who came on and stopped the bleeding for the D-backs with the equivalent of a strong start. Nelson pitched 5.1 innings with three hits and one run allowed, no walks and six strikeouts in relief of the D-backs opening middle relief quartet.
“Hindsight is 20-20,” Lovullo said. “You look at it a little bit different after you know what the outcome is. And maybe he was an option for us after an opener. Maybe he was an option for us to start the baseball game.”
The Rangers, meanwhile, put their trust in a back-end starter and were rewarded. Staked to a commanding early lead, lefthander Andrew Heaney pitched five sharp innings with four hits and one run allowed, two walks and three strikeouts to pick up the win. It was his first start completing five innings since Aug. 29.
“Obviously that’s the name of the game,” Heaney said. “Trying to get as many innings as possible, keep runs off the board.”
The D-backs rallied late against the Rangers maligned bullpen, scoring four runs in the eighth and two more in the ninth to polish the score.
But in the end, falling behind by 10 runs was too much to overcome.
“This was nothing that we saw coming,” Lovullo said. “We’ve had guys that have been throwing the ball extremely well (and) picking up the baseball on defense. It all came unraveled on us there in a matter of two innings. And it’s 10 runs.”
Neither team should be tempted to fall into the trap of throwing a bullpen game the rest of the series.
The D-backs have righthander Zac Gallen set to start Game 5 with fellow righthanders Merrill Kelly and Brandon Pfaadt ready to go for Games 6 and 7, if necessary. The Rangers will counter with righthander Nate Eovaldi in Game 5 and have lefthander Jordan Montgomery available for Game 6 if necessary. Righthander Jon Gray pitched three scoreless innings of relief in Game 3 and “probably had more in the tank” according to Bochy, meaning he’s an option to give the Rangers a traditional start in Game 7 with Max Scherzer out the rest of the series with back spasms.
In theory, a bullpen game sounds interesting. In reality, it’s not a tactic that works when the stakes are highest in the postseason.
The D-backs became the latest team to learn that the hard way. Now, they are one loss away from their season coming to an end.