Dodgers relievers play games in the bullpen, saving games on the mound

Evan Phillips, celebrating the Dodgers’ win against the Miami Marlins with catcher Will Smith on Aug. 19, has become one of the team’s most valuable relievers. (Alex Gallardo/Associated Press)

The rules of the game are simple.

Every day, as they sit out in the bullpen, Dodgers relievers have the opportunity to predict a home run their teammates will hit at any point in the game. If they sense a long ball coming, they signal it with their hat. And on the rare occasion they call it right, a mini in-game celebration ensues in what has become a friendly, but fierce, rivalry.

There is a strategy. Evan Phillips tries to spot favorable matchups before the game. Alex Vesia will scout each hitter’s first at-bat. There are times when the calls simply go to the hottest arm (Edwin Ríos was a popular pick early this season) or they pick the most emotional at-bat of the day (Vesia hit James Outman’s first career homer in bat).

The Dodgers also track each pitcher’s performance throughout the season, keeping the score updated on a hand-drawn scoreboard.

“We have a good little race,” said Vesia, who trails only Phillips and bullpen coach Josh Bard in the standings.

“I have a pretty big one [lead] right now,” Phillips added with a smile. “These guys have some work to do.”

The game helped bond a team that has been battered by injuries to some of its most important arms.

Leading player Blake Treinen only recently returned from a shoulder injury that cost him most of the season. Key offseason addition Daniel Hudson will not compete again this season due to a torn knee ligament suffered in June.

Several other injured veterans are still recovering, including Tommy Kahnle, Danny Duffy and David Price.

Even eight-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel wasn’t reliable, though his issue was inconsistent performance, not time spent on the injured list.

Instead, it was the stabilization of such works as Phillips and Vesia. the development of younger relievers like Brusdar Graterol and Caleb Ferguson; The quiet additions of Yency Almonte and Chris Martin. and the one-year effort to fit all the changing pieces that have helped the Dodgers build a bullpen that ranks third in the majors in ERA.

“It looks a lot different than what we expected,” manager Dave Roberts acknowledged this week. “But these guys are accountable like all of us. They don’t care about roles. … That speaks to the mentality, the culture of those guys under the bull.”

When Treinen returned to the Dodgers this week after a four-month absence, he joked with assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness about seeing some of the new faces in the bullpen.

“He says, ‘Are you going to copy me?’ ,” McGuinness recalled with a laugh.

Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen reacts during the 2021 playoffs against the Atlanta Braves.

Reliever Blake Treinen, who appeared in the 2021 playoffs against the Atlanta Braves, revived his career after joining the Dodgers in 2020. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

No, McGuiness told Treinen, not exactly.

Treinen has become the epitome of the Dodgers’ ability to revive the careers of struggling pitchers.

A one-time All-Star who had lost his way with the Oakland Athletics, the right-hander came to Los Angeles in 2020 looking for a fresh start. After a solid but unspectacular first season with the Dodgers, he found a new sweeping slider, a re-emphasis on his cutter and more velocity behind his sinker that helped him emerge last season as one of the best relievers baseball again.

On the surface, it seemed like an easy template to replicate — a specific mold for the Dodgers to plaster with other pitchers, especially in Treinen’s absence this season.

Sitting in the team home recently, McGuiness shook his head at the misunderstanding.

“[Each pitcher] he still does it very differently,” he said. “Each one puts their own spin on a similar recipe.”

Take Phillips, the soon-to-be 28-year-old right-hander who has shouldered the brunt of the workload in the absence of Treinen, Hudson and others.

When the team claimed him in August 2021, he was a journeyman reliever, a 17th-round draft pick with a 7.50 career ERA with three teams.

The Dodgers, however, saw potential.

He already had a hard slider and decent fastball velocity. The team helped him add a cutter and more sinking action to his heater.

His new arsenal is more like Treinen’s. But the characteristics of each pitch, the arm angle from which he throws and the way he uses his arms to attack hitters are different.

“I don’t think they necessarily said, ‘Hey, we’re going to try to turn you into Blake Trienen,”’ Phillips said. “I just think what this team does really well, especially for relievers, is make you throw more better pitches”.

The result: Phillips has a 1.35 ERA, a .769 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) and perhaps the most confidence of any player in the bullpen, on track to play in some of October’s highest-leverage moments.

“Going into the season, we had other guys that we thought of as leverage guys,” Roberts said. “So to his credit, as guys went down or got hurt, he took the opportunities and ran with them.”

Others have done the same.

Vesia has become a left-handed reliever thanks to improvements with his fastball — a pitch that had never topped 94 mph in a major league game before being acquired in a trade last year, but now averages that velocity after the team helped make changes to his mechanics and training routines.

Alex Vecia of the Dodgers will pitch against the Chicago Cubs on July 7th.

Dodgers reliever Alex Vesia closes out a game against the Chicago Cubs on July 7. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“I’m a completely different pitcher when I’m 90-93 mph versus when I’m 93-95 mph, or even 97 mph,” said Vesia, who has a 2.36 ERA and the most strikeouts among relievers on the team.

Almonte was a late spring addition this offseason, signing a minor league deal after four up-and-coming seasons with the Colorado Rockies.

On one of his first days with the Dodgers, he sat down with McGuiness and head pitching coach Mark Prior to discuss tweaks to his pitch mix: More sliders and sinkers, fewer four-seamers and changeups.

He has since posted a 1.15 ERA, impressing his old teammates when the Dodgers visited Colorado earlier this year.

“They were saying, ‘Brother, what did they do?’ Almonte laughed. “I just told them, the Dodgers know what they’re doing.”

There are also domestic examples.

Graterol — who, like Almonte, is on the injured list but expected to return in the coming weeks — overcame some early struggles by zeroing in on his command and making the cutter more of a part of his mix, resulting in a 0.89 ERA over June 8.

Ferguson, who returned from his second Tommy John surgery in May, has credited some of his success to a more relaxed mental approach, helping him post a 1.73 ERA in his comeback campaign.

Add in help from other surprise contributors like Price (2.58 ERA in his first full season as a reliever) and Martin (the deadline acquisition who has a 2.51 ERA in 15 appearances with the Dodgers) and the club managed to turn the pile of apparent spares and overlooked parts in one of the most well-oiled medium relief machines of the majors.

Come October, the Dodgers will still have to figure things out on the back end.

Their closer status remains up in the air, with Kimbrel pitching better of late — seven straight scoreless outings — but still putting up subpar numbers overall this season.

There’s the potential for several more weapons to be added to the equation, with Duffy, Kahnle and Victor González tied for potential returns from long-term injuries.

But in an era where the bullpen could have crumbled, the emergence of a new core of relievers held them steady throughout the year.

In addition to their third-ranked ERA, they have the lowest bullpen WHIP, second-lowest batting average against, and best strikeout rate for walks in the majors.

And when the playoffs begin next month, they’re hoping their abundant late-game options will prove to be one of their biggest strengths – and that they’ll have a lot more than just predictable home runs to celebrate.

“Some people said, ‘How are you going to make these pieces work?’ but I feel like we’ve done it,” Phillips said. “You can’t predict injury. You can’t predict success or not. But to have that depth, to be able to go out and get pieces when we need to, plus we have great leadership down there … I think it makes a big difference.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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