The Yankees had their “Core Four” of players who won five World Series together in 14 seasons. Does the foursome of Giants relievers who have participated in three World Series runs in five years claim a similarly catchy nickname?
“No,” left-hander Javier Lopez said with a chuckle. “If anybody has some suggestions, we’re more than willing to listen.”
The back end of the Giants’ bullpen may operate in relative anonymity, but looking at the rosters of their three recent pennant-clinching teams, it is one of only a few constants. There are Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner. There are Pablo Sandoval, who played a bench role in 2010, and Tim Lincecum, who has been buried in the bullpen this year.
And then there are Jeremy Affeldt, Lopez, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla. Together, they form the backbone of a relief corps that is a major reason the Giants are playing in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday in Kansas City.
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“I hate to think,” manager Bruce Bochy said last week, “about where we’d be without our bullpen.”
During the postseason, the Giants’ bullpen has combined for a 1.78 ERA, the lowest of all 10 playoff teams, in 351/3 innings. While Yusmeiro Petit has been the breakout star in long relief and Hunter Strickland’s home run troubles have been well documented, the veteran quartet quietly has continued its steady work.
The game-winning home run by the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong off Romo in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series is the only run the four have allowed in 192/3 innings this October. And that is not out of character, given their performance in the Giants’ last two playoff runs, when the circumstances of their outings are ostensibly the most pressurized they will face all season.
Lopez has not allowed a run in his last 15 playoff appearances, dating to the 2010 NLCS. Casilla has gone 17 postseason appearances without allowing a run. His streak remains intact with an assist from Affeldt, who bailed Casilla out of a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the ninth inning of the Game 5 clincher against the Cardinals. The last time Affeldt gave up a run in the playoffs was the 2010 World Series, 18 appearances ago.
“There’s obviously going to be a little bit of anxiety in the situations that we pitch,” Lopez said “But I feel like with Jeremy and Romo and Casilla, there’s no sense of panic at any point in time from those guys. Obviously this isn’t a regular-season game anymore, but you try to treat it that way the best you can. And I think that’s why we’ve been so successful in those spots.”
Said Romo: “We understand what each of us can do; we’ve been together for so long. And we know we kind of complement each other.”
It is a very different bullpen from that of the Royals, who have been known to summon right-hander Kelvin Herrera, who throws 100 mph, in the seventh inning. When leading in the seventh, the Royals typically give the ball to their late-game trio of Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, all flamethrowers who posted ERAs below 1.50 this season.
“Those guys have a lot of velocity in that bullpen – they have the ability to shorten the game,” Lopez said of the Royals, whose 1.80 bullpen ERA this postseason is second only to the Giants’. “I think we have the same ability to shorten the game; it’s just we have a lot of finesse. That’s kind of our thing, deception.”
The Giants’ bullpen roles are also perhaps less structured. Casilla is the closer, having replaced Romo at midseason. Romo often will pitch the eighth inning with a lead, but Bochy will mix and match with Romo and left-handers Affeldt, who faces both left- and right-handed hitters, and Lopez, the sidewinder who usually gets the opposition’s top left-handed threat.
“I know them well; they know me,” Bochy said. “I think they think along with me, kind of know when to come in, and we have all the confidence in them. Hopefully they know that. I’ll use them at really any point in the game.”
Perhaps the prime example of that was Game 6 of the 2010 NLCS in Philadelphia, when Bochy replaced struggling starter Jonathan Sanchez with Affeldt in the third inning of a tie game. Despite the Giants holding a 3-2 series lead, Bochy managed his pitching staff aggressively – also using starters Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner in relief – and saw it pay off as the Giants clinched.
Bochy’s approach requires the relievers to be on their toes. After Romo allowed Wong’s walk-off homer, the reliever was back on the mound the next game, asked to preserve a tie in the 10th inning. Casilla appeared in four of the five NLCS games against St. Louis. So did Affeldt, whom Bochy summoned to face Oscar Taveras with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of Game 5 despite Affeldt having thrown 51 pitches over the previous four days.
“There is no time we’re unavailable,” Affeldt said later. “It just depends on the scenarios. I don’t think that I’m ever unavailable until the last out’s made, and then I get to come in here (to the clubhouse) and hang out.”
Romo said he believes there is a benefit to the bullpen staying relatively constant over the past five seasons.
“We know in what situations who’s going in and why,” he said. “And we see when little things are going wrong.”
Affeldt agreed the relievers are familiar enough with each other’s mechanics that they’ll sometimes pick up on issues in games that may go unnoticed by coaches. Affeldt said he often seeks input from Lopez, who is “really smart when it comes to the mental makeup of the game,” and doesn’t hesitate to speak up “if I feel like a guy’s stride is too long or his hips are opening up.”
Lopez said that after his first appearance in this year’s National League Division Series, when he walked Nationals slugger Adam LaRoche, Casilla approached him.
“He goes, ‘You didn’t look carefree physically. You looked like you were aiming,’” Lopez said. “When I looked at the tape, he was pretty much right on. Those are things we kind of notice, because we’ve seen each other throw for such a long time.”
Long enough that perhaps the most remarkable aspect is the one thing they’re not used to seeing: any of the four entering a game in October and failing to do his job.
“We don’t make promises,” Affeldt said. “We’re not always going to come through – we aren’t robots. But if I’m putting myself in Bochy’s shoes … I think he sees through that lens of, these four guys have been with me in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and I’m going to rely on their experience to help me.
“And we value that. We’re very honored (for him) to be able to say that. I’m just happy that we’ve been able to do the job for him.”