PHOENIX — David Hernandez showed up at work Wednesday wearing a T-shirt with a big, backward K on the front. It caught at least one clubhouse observer looking.
But why not? If you have it, flaunt it, and Hernandez and the rest of the Diamondbacks’ relievers have a lot of reasons to feel good about themselves these days.
The D-backs won the NL West with a solid, sometimes spectacular bullpen last year, and it appears as if they can count on that same kind of shutdown effectiveness as they attempt to make up ground in the 2012 stretch drive. It took a while, but the bullpen is back. You can look it up.
Hernandez has K’d – frontward and backward – opponents at a rate that is among the highest in the major leagues. With his 95 mph fastball and 81-84 mph slurve-y breaking ball, he is averaging 13.33 strikeouts per nine innings. For every inning in which he strikes out one, the next inning he strikes out two.
Brad Ziegler leads major league relievers in double-play grounders induced (14) and has only been scored on once in his last 20 outings. He has permitted only 11 of 44 inherited runners to score, about as good at it gets considering that he has entered games with the bases loaded six times this season, four times with fewer than two outs.
Tying the back end together is closer J.J. Putz, who — since jettisoning the cut fastball he added this spring and carried into the early months of the season — has converted 17 consecutive save opportunities after going 2 for 2 in Wednesday’s double-header. He has the fourth-longest active conversion streak in the majors and has not been scored on in 20 outings since June 19, a stretch in which he has struck out 21 and walked three.
Putz and setup men Hernandez and Ziegler are now a combined 8-7 with a 2.54 ERA, 26 saves and 28 holds. Since the All-Star break, however, they’ve allowed only 37 base-runners and six runs (all earned) in 49 innings — a 1.47 ERA.
“Those guys are all comfortable where they are at, and they are throwing the ball very well,” Gibson said.
Hernandez, who has 80 strikeouts in 54 innings, does not particularly seek strikeouts. But if a hitter is cheating — starting his swing early — to gear up for a mid-90s fastball, it is almost impossible not to be way off-balance for a slower breaking ball. And if he guesses slurve … Miami’s Gorkys Hernandez took a fastball right down the middle for strike three in the eighth inning Tuesday, when Hernandez struck out the side.
“In different situations you try for strikeouts, but as a reliever, you are trying to get outs as quick as you can,” Hernandez said. “It comes down to making good pitches, which leads to strikeouts. As long as I don’t give up any runs, it’s all right.”
Hernandez, one of the first players acquired by general manager Kevin Towers to beef up his bullpen in the winter of 2010, is still relatively new to full-time relief work, but he has a handle on it now. He has given up two earned runs since the All-Star break and has nine 1-2-3 innings in his 17 appearances in that stretch.
“Another year as a reliever, you kind of grow and mature into the role,” he said. “You take it one day at a time. That is the key to being a reliever. One day you are the hero, one day you are the villain. That’s the way it goes.
“I feel like we have our roles and we are comfortable, and it is just a matter of making pitches now.”
Only two relievers, both situational lefties, have inherited more runners than Ziegler, who’s 5-1 with a 2.31 ERA. A former starting pitcher before becoming a submarine-style reliever, Ziegler takes pride in saving runs for his predecessors.
“That’s an important stat for a middle reliever,” Ziegler said. “No. 1, we want to win the game, and whether it goes on our stats or not, it affects the team. We want to do what we can for the guys who are out there fighting their tail off for six or seven innings. We don’t want their ERA to (go) up after they left the game.
“I’ve been in that (starting pitcher) situation. I know what it is like to have runs scored after I came out. Once I became a bullpen guy, it was something I wanted to work on. A lot of that is a credit to the defense. I consider myself a contact, ground-ball pitcher. My infielders are out there turning double plays. I’m hoping they hit it right at them, because they are very good at it.”
The D-backs signed Hernandez to a two-year, $3.4 million contract extension in late June, when Putz had not yet regained his 2011 form. Some saw that as an indication that Hernandez would replace Putz as the closer next season, but that does not seem to be the case any longer.
The D-backs have cleared enough money off the books this season that Putz’s $6.5 million option for 2013 is affordable, and the way he has pitched for the last several months suggests he would be a bargain that that price.
Putz gave up four home runs in his first 11 games, as many as he allowed all of 2011, and his ERA sat at 7.20 after he suffered his third blown save of the season against the Dodgers on May 22. He failed to convert only four times last year. But since then, he has given up just two runs in 24 2/3 innings, and Gibson pointed to one factor.
“He stopped throwing his cutter. He has better action on his ball. I think, when he threw his cutter, he was cutting things (delivery) off and he lost his velocity. He locates very well. He knows what he is doing very well. He’s been in a lot of wars.