Off-field bond integral to Brewers’ bullpen’s success

After parting ways with the majority of his relievers last offseason, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin put addressing his bullpen on the backburner over the winter. Little did he know that his bullpen, which finished fifth-worst in the majors in 2010, would become baseball’s sixth-best in 2011.

Adding only free agent right-hander Takashi Saito in January, the Brewers opened spring training with a slew of internal candidates and minor league invites vying for the remaining bullpen spots.

It was in the spring when, according to star closer John Axford, Brewers relievers grew together away from the diamond, something that wound up being instrumental to their success throughout the season.

“A lot of it just starts off the field,” Axford said. “It’s something that we try to instill early in spring training, that this is going to be a close knit group; that this is going to be a group of guys that are going to be counted on, especially with the rotation we put together and the offense that we had.”

After acquiring Sergio Mitre from the Yankees near the tail end of spring training, the Brewers’ Opening Day bullpen consisted of eight pitchers, most of whom were uncertain options from within the organization.

Just two games into the regular season, that uncertainty increased when Saito, the Brewers’ main offseason bullpen addition, strained his hamstring in the Crew’s season opener and wound up hitting the disabled list until July after additional oblique and back ailments kept him out of action.

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With Axford and Kameron Loe anchoring the back end of the Brewers’ pen, the club received unlikely boosts from Mitre and Zach Braddock in Saito’s absence, but none was more unexpected than the boost brought from 38-year-old LaTroy Hawkins.

After limping to an 8.44 ERA in an injury-plagued debut season with the Brewers in 2010, Hawkins was activated from the disabled list in late April. Given his troubles the year before, expectations were low. Instead, after allowing an earned run in his first appearance of the season on April 22, Hawkins did not allow another one until July 4 – a string of 20 innings.

No longer hampered with an injury, Hawkins was finally pitching like the Brewers envisioned he would when they signed him to a two-year, $7.5 million contract in December 2009.

“Health is the biggest thing,” Hawkins said about his resurgence on the mound in 2011. “Last year I was hurt; I had surgery. I had a good year in ’09 and last year I came out having some shoulder issues. I’m just glad the surgery went well and rehab went even better and I’m having a chance to pitch at the level that I pitched at [in 2009].”

After nearly three months away from the Majors, the Brewers received a big boost to their bullpen when they activated Saito from the 60-day disabled list at the beginning of July. With the Crew locking horns with division rival St. Louis for NL Central supremacy, Melvin looked to add one piece that would really put the Brewers’ bullpen over the top and prepare them for a postseason run.

That piece came on July 12 in the form of New York Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez, the flamethrowing right-hander and Major League record holder for saves in a single season.  The Brewers, though, already had one of the game’s best closers in Axford, who had converted 20 consecutive saves at the time, so it remained to be seen how the two stoppers were going to be used together.

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With Saito and Rodriguez in the fold, they became a lethal duo in the seventh and eighth innings ahead of Axford, who remained the Brewers’ ninth-inning specialist.

That took some getting used to for Rodriguez, who admitted that his arrival helped stabilize the Brewers ‘pen.

“It’s a lot different. Now everybody has their own role, they know when they’re going to come into the game,” Rodriguez told The Good Point in August. “It’s a lot better for their preparation; every single one of us knows what our job is going to be and we make sure to get it done.”

However, reports surfaced in mid-September that Rodriguez was unhappy in his set-up role ahead of Axford and that he wasn’t being given the opportunity to close games.

Spotted on camera frequently joking around with his teammates while maintaining his competitive nature on the mound, Rodriguez’s comments were somewhat of a surprise to Brewers fans.

As dramatic as his comments might have been, there was no denying how valuable Rodriguez was for the Brewers down the stretch in high leverage situations as they trudged forward and eventually clinched a division title.

During close regular season games that had a playoff atmosphere, Axford reiterated how the strong bond between relievers on and off the field helped keep them relaxed as the playoffs approached.

“We’re actually a really close group of guys,” Axford said. “We have a lot of fun, when we get into cities we like to have dinners together and stuff, too.”

Right-hander Tim Dillard, who spent all of 2010 in the minors but roughly half of the 2011 season with the Brewers during various stints, agreed.

“Everyone likes [each other], everyone jokes around,” Dillard said. “It’s just that getting along and wanting to be the one that picks up the other guy. Everybody wants to just be successful overall.

“That’s something I’ve never come across before. It’s pretty special.”

After finishing 26th in the Majors with a 4.48 ERA, Brewers relievers pitched more to contact this season and it resulted in a 3.32 mark, sixth-lowest in baseball. The Crew’s revamped starting rotation helped lessen their load as well, pitching deeper into games resulting in almost 70 less innings of work that in 2010. This helped the bullpen focus more on their job to do, which resulted in a Major League-low .299 on-base percentage against.

After finishing 22nd in the Majors with 212 walks and a 43.4% ground ball rate last season, Brewers relievers finished the 2011 campaign with a Major league-low 139 free passes and the second-highest ground ball rate at 50.9%, thanks largely in part to Hawkins’ 61.7 mark.

Hawkins, who watched the majority of games as a spectator last season, took notice of these figures as the main reasons for the bullpen’s dramatic turnaround in 2011.

“I just think the unit is going out there and throwing strikes. Last year, we had some walks and some other things go wrong, but this year we’re just attacking the strike zone and letting guys put the ball in play and the defense making some plays.

“I think that was the key for us.”

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