Thrown into fire, young Padres bullpen thriving
Despite influx of rookies, club's relief corps hasn't skipped a beat this year
Life in a big league bullpen requires an uncommonly short memory and the ability to be ready for everything -- skills that normally come with experience.
But experience is something the Padres' bullpen simply does not have. Only one member of San Diego's current bullpen -- Luke Gregerson -- was there on Opening Day, though when Joe Thatcher and Huston Street return from injury, that number will jump to three.
Manager Bud Black has been forced to throw rookie after rookie into the fire of late-inning situations, send players into crucial situations hours after they arrive from the Minor Leagues, and rely on players with weeks -- rather than years -- of big league experience.
And it's worked.
The Padres are 50-1 when leading after seven innings, 43-5 when leading after six, and 55-0 after eight. Traditionally one of the Majors' top relief corps -- San Diego led the Majors in bullpen ERA in 2010 and ranked third last season -- the Padres have not fallen from that standard, despite the influx of rookies like Brad Boxberger, Brad Brach, Cory Burns, Tommy Layne, Miles Mikolas, Dale Thayer and Nick Vincent.
And while to a man, those relievers will credit the work of pitching coach Darren Balsley and bullpen coach Jimmy Jones for prepping them to succeed immediately, they also cite lessons learned from one another.
From when to be ready for batting practice to how to implement the game plan to the more banal aspects of the reliever's daily routine, many Padres relievers say having friends around to help as they adjust to big league life is crucial.
"You can compare. It just makes it easier because you have someone you can talk to," said Brach, who at 26 and with 61 Major League games under his belt has become somewhat of a mentor. "I think it's good, because we're all going through the same thing. We all pick each other up. We're always talking down there, just kind of trying to figure it out on the run."
They've certainly done a good job.
Brach and 31-year-old rookie Thayer have been reliable rookies for the new faces -- and for Black to turn to -- since being called up to and establishing themselves as part of the Padres' bullpen earlier this year. Brach has thrown 52 games and allowed just two of 35 inherited runners to score. Thayer has pitched in 47 games, tallying seven saves while filling in for closer Street.
But for the other rookies, the road between Triple-A Tucson and San Diego has become a very familiar one. But rather than a tense environment of young guys awaiting the call to the bigs, these Padres rookies say their dynamic is anything but hostile or overly competitive.
"Obviously, we all want to be up here -- it is a competition because everyone wants to be up here -- but you're never going to root against someone to not get called up," Burns said. "It's baseball, we're still friends off the field. When something good happens to your friends and family, you're always going to celebrate with them. Whether it's you get called up, they get called up, it doesn't really matter."
That team-oriented attitude combined with the big league experience (and success) the rookie relievers have had this year bodes well for the future.
"You always feel like the best teams are the teams that have been together for a while. ... When those guys are together, we'll have had so much time together that we'll be one unit," Mikolas said. "With guys coming up and down, everybody slides right back in."
Considering the six rookies currently in the Padres' bullpen have 154 combined games of experience (Brach and Thayer account for 108 of them) and are still pitching San Diego to the eighth-best relief ERA (3.18) in the Majors and the third-most strikeouts (416), the future is a promising one for that unit as it grows up together.
"To see these guys get comfortable being out there and getting in big situations and doing the job, it's fun to watch," Thatcher said. "We're starting to establish roles, so it's coming together. Down the road, I think we can be as good as we have been in the past. I see no reason why we can't be better than we've ever been. It's exciting."
Chelsea Janes is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.