Bullpen aces ready to follow Andrew Miller's lead this fall

NEW YORK (AP) — Andrew Miller turned the middle innings into a major stage last October, earning AL Championship Series MVP while pitching the Cleveland Indians into the World Series.

This postseason, he’ll have company — a crew of shutdown arms trained to do more than close out a lead in the ninth.

Managers have taken their cue from Indians skipper Terry Francona, keeping some lights-out pitchers in long relief roles that once existed outside of the spotlight. With starter workloads continuing to shrink, these playoffs could be when those middle men become household names.

“Especially with what you saw with Miller last year, sometimes the big out is in the fifth inning,” Chad Green, reliever of the New York Yankees said. “That might be the big inning.”

Francona is as bold an innovator as any manager, and Miller might be his most fruitful playoff trial. Miller’s transition to middle relief last fall keyed Cleveland’s run to the Series, with Miller — formerly an elite closer — eagerly entering games as soon as the fifth and powering through two-plus innings.

Pitcher usage is changing across the board. Starters covered an all-time low 5.5 innings per game this year, and teams have been even quicker with the hook in recent postseasons. Some of that is about pitch counts and injuries, but it’s also because managers want certain relievers in the game sooner.

A look at some of the other fireman relievers who could shine this postseason:

CHRIS DEVENSKI, HOUSTON ASTROS

Devenski grabbed baseball’s attention by opening the season with a pair of overpowering four-inning relief appearances and pitched his way into the All-Star Game. A right-hander with a devastating changeup, he’s thrown over 80 innings out of the bullpen each of the past two years and ranks seventh among relievers with 3.6 wins above replacement in that span, per Fangraphs.

ARCHIE BRADLEY, ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

The bush-bearded Bradley has a 1.73 ERA over 73 innings, averaging more than three outs per appearance while pitching anywhere between the fifth and ninth innings. He’s been used in a more traditional setup role of late, but after throwing 182 1/3 innings last year, Bradley should have the stamina for a heavy workload in the playoffs.

MIKE MONTGOMERY, CHICAGO CUBS

Montgomery got a one-out save in Game 7 of last year’s World Series, but he also had three multi-inning relief outings in the playoffs and could get even more of those this year after an impressive season of bullpen work. Montgomery moved in and out of the rotation but had a 2.49 ERA while pitching 61 1/3 innings over 30 relief outings.

CHRIS RUSIN, COLORADO ROCKIES

Rusin has been a workhorse in Colorado’s bullpen, finishing second in the majors with 85 relief innings while posting a 2.65 ERA, including 1.88 away from Coors Field. The left-hander is a groundball machine and keeps his pitch count down by challenging hitters early. Four times this year, he pitched at least three innings out of the bullpen without topping 37 pitches, and he’s even gone multiple innings while throwing on consecutive days.

DAVID PRICE, BOSTON RED SOX

Price’s situation is different, but his impact could be similar.

Price has struggled, been hurt and feuded with the media this year. But since ending his most recent DL stint, he’s proven useful in the bullpen, pitching shutout ball over 8 2/3 relief innings in September. Long relief might not be the role Boston envisioned when Price signed a $217 million, seven-year deal prior to the 2016 season, but the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner could be an asset there. Plus, he has experience as a playoff reliever — in 2008 as a rookie with Tampa Bay and in 2015 ALDS Game 4 with Toronto.

 

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