Getting bullpen right is D-backs’ first priority

PHOENIX — The Diamondbacks used a closer-by-situation approach in the final series before the All-Star break, and it worked fine. Three save opportunities, three saves by two different finishers.

But it is not an ideal solution, manager Kirk Gibson said, and his relievers echoed that sentiment.

Righting a bullpen that is tied (with the Cubs) for the major league lead with 19 failed save conversions is a top priority as the D-backs look to maintain their 2 1/2-game lead over the charging Dodgers in the NL West.

With all hands fresh and rested, Plan A could present itself this weekend in San Francisco.

“The closer’s job is probably the toughest job there is on a 25-man roster,” D-backs general manager Kevin Towers said before the break. “There is no safety net. There is nobody there to back them up. We don’t have to walk in their shoes, but I guarantee they are taking it very tough. We understand how hard and difficult it is.

“‘Gibby’ and myself and the coaching staff’s job is not to hang our heads and continue to get rope-a-doped. It’s how do we fix it? What other things can we do? Try to get guys in the right spots to be successful.

“Those are type of conversations we are having right now. You’ll probably have a better idea of what our plan is when we open up against the Giants on Friday.”

The D-backs would like to have a definite closer and eighth-inning setup man in place after the break, Gibson said, although he later said that if it is best to continue with the situational approach — who is rested? who matches up well against the hitter? — he will not hesitate.

The key to role definition is the health of J.J. Putz. In a perfect world, Putz would be the closer, Gibson said late last week, and the bullpen would be fall into place around him. But for that to happen, Putz needs to regain the arm strength that has yet to return after he missed seven weeks with a right elbow strain before coming back June 29. He failed to convert his lone save opportunity since, leaving him 5 for 10 this season.

“I think he’s throwing better than when he first came up,” Gibson said. “I don’t think he was as ready as he thought he was, but we’ve kind of put him on a little different type of program. How much better can he throw? I don’t know. We’ll just work him along.”

Putz, who had 45 saves in 2011 and 32 last year, has been clocked at 90-92 mph with his fastball since returning, with an occasional 93. He knows a little more is needed.

“I think if I can pitch at 93-94, that makes this better,” he said, making a split-finger motion. “Everything feels fine, but there is not that life on the fastball yet. The number one thing is there is no pain. The second thing is, I feel like I am commanding both sides of the plate with the fastball, which is huge. The fastball (velocity) is the last thing.”

He believes his return to form is probably the best thing for all concerned.

“Whatever they decide is the best going forward, I’m 100 percent on board with,” he said. “I’ve never, ever been egotistical. What about me? If they need me to pitch in the seventh and eighth inning and everybody else fills in, that’s fine.
“I think that if I’m going good again, we are a better ball club with me pitching in the back end and everybody else filling those roles. It’s just a matter of when does that happen. When do I get to that point?”

How the D-backs proceed until then remains to be seen. Gibson has options. Brad Ziegler converted both of his save opportunities against the Brewers last weekend, and he has been the most consistent bullpen performer this season. Some D-backs believe he should have made the All-Star team.

David Hernandez also held a lead against Milwaukee. Second closer Heath Bell leads the D-backs with 16 saves, but he also has five failed conversions, as does Hernandez. After Towers said the lack of a second pitch was hurting Hernandez and Bell, both showed better breaking balls last weekend.

“It (the first half) didn’t go the way we want it to go, but we can’t change that,” said Hernandez, who had 11 saves in 2011, including seven straight when Putz missed a month with an elbow injury. “We just have to more forward.”

If the internal options can’t get the job done, Towers has never been shy about exploring the trade market. San Francisco won the 2010 World Series in part because of the under-the-radar trading deadline acquisition of Javier Lopez, and Towers astutely added Ziegler to the Arizona bullpen at the 2011 trade deadline. Published reports have linked the D-backs to the Brewers’ relievers, but a source said the D-backs are not interested in Francisco Rodriguez. John Axford and lefty Mike Gonzalez also are available.

Other late-inning relievers whose names have been floated as possibly available include the Twins’ Glen Perkins, the Cubs’ Kevin Gregg, the Astros’ Jose Veras and the Marlins’ Steve Cishek.
D-backs relievers have a 3.23 ERA, which ranks 10th in the majors and is almost exactly what their ERA was in 2012 — but a lot of that is thanks to Ziegler and long man Josh Collmenter. One of the main troubles has been keeping the ball in the park. Diamondbacks relievers have given up 32 home runs, third in the National League. Among back-end relievers, only Padres closer Huston Street (10) has given up more home runs than Bell and Hernandez, who have given up eight apiece. One of the factors in using Ziegler to close last weekend, Gibson said, was that he has given up only two homers.

Like Gibson and Putz, Ziegler believes roles are important, however they are assigned.

“It is always better to have an idea, when the (bullpen) phone rings, it is probably this guy,” he said. “If you never know, you are stretching in the fifth inning, sixth inning, seventh inning. It is hard to be ready for that amount of time. It can be mentally tiring. When things are going well, we are have our defined roles and it makes that process a lot easier.”
“That’s what everybody wants. That’s when our team is at our best.”

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