It’s not usual to see a player or two running sprints in the outfield three or four hours before a major league baseball game. But this routine pre-game exercise had a little different look to it Saturday afternoon in St. Louis.
Five young Phillies relievers -- Jake Diekman, Ethan Martin, Mario Hollands, Justin De Fratus and Kenny Giles -- ran a dozen sprints together on a virtually empty field.
When the workout was over, they assembled in a huddle and exchanged a group high-five.
You may have noticed that the Phillies’ bullpen has been on a pretty good roll the last month.
There are a lot of reasons for this:
Talent is a big one.
So is the experience that has been gained by the bullpen’s young core.
Togetherness is another.
This togetherness was on display during pre-game sprints Saturday in St. Louis.
“It’s fun to do it together,” said Diekman, who at 27 is the oldest of the aforementioned group of relievers. “Everyone down there has each other’s back. We have fun. We pull for each other.”
Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen, who spent 17 years in big-league bullpens, says this togetherness is crucial to a bullpen’s success.
“You become a family within a family,” he said. “You root for each other. You want to come through for each other. One guy allows a couple of baserunners, you want to get him out of it.”
The closer a bullpen is, the more fun it can have.
During last Friday night’s game in St. Louis, Phillies relievers were dive-bombed by swarms of moths throughout the game.
“It was crazy,” Diekman said with a laugh. “I was trying to whip them with a towel. De Fratus was trying to shank them.”
Having fun is important, Andersen said.
“You need to have fun,” he said. “It relaxes you. When you’re relaxed you pitch better.”
Closer Jonathan Papelbon is the leader of the good-times squad in the bullpen -- at least until it’s time to get his game face on. That’s one thing about a bullpen. The first few innings of a game can be fun, but when the later innings come, it’s time to focus. This Phillies group has learned how to do that.
Papelbon likes to play the role of villain in some of his dealings with the media, but beneath his prickly exterior is a character who likes to laugh. He’s not the bad guy some people think he is.
“That’s 100 percent false,” Diekman said. “He’s very supportive of the guys in the bullpen. He’s always asking, ‘How do you feel?’ He gives you advice. He wants to see you do well. He’s happy when you do well. He wants you to do well so he has a chance to get in the game.”
So he’s not a bad guy?
“Nope,” Diekman said. “I just think he feeds off it.”
Manager Ryne Sandberg and pitching coach Bob McClure both credit Papelbon for being a mentor to the young relievers.
Papelbon is a pro wrestling aficionado. Over the last few weeks, he has given his mates in the bullpen nicknames to go along with pro wrestlers.
Diekman is Jake the Snake Roberts.
De Fratus is Goldust.
Giles is Diamond Dallas Page.
Martin is the Iron Sheik.
Hollands is Eddie Guerrero.
Mike Adams is The Hulk.
Antonio Bastardo is Rey Mysterio.
B.J. Rosenberg is Stone Cold.
Jeff Manship is Mankind.
Bullpen catchers Jesus Tiamo and Bob Stumpo are The Bushwhackers.
Bullpen coach Rod Nichols’ nickname is a classic -- Vince McMahon.
Papelbon, of course, is Ric Flair. He enters games to a sound track of Flair’s booming voice at Citizens Bank Park.
These aren’t just nicknames to Papelbon. He wants to see the real-life wrestling personas on the mound.
“I gave Diekman the nickname Jake the Snake,” Papelbon said. “When he takes the mound, I want to see Jake the Snake out there.
“When I take the mound, I don’t want Pap out there. I want Ric Flair out there.
“When Martin is out there, I want to see the Iron Sheik.”
There’s a lot of rough-edge attitude in wrestling. Papelbon thinks it can help out of the bullpen, too.
“Find your inner warrior,” he said. “If you think you’re a bad ass, there’s a better chance you’ll be a bad ass.”
Back in spring training, Papelbon predicted that the Phillies would have a top-five bullpen in the majors this season. At the time, a lot of folks snickered at his prediction because the Phillies’ bullpen ranked fourth-worst in the majors last season with a 4.13 ERA. Through June 2 of this season, it ranked second-worst in the NL with a 4.30 ERA.
Thanks to recent success that includes Bastardo allowing just one earned run in his last 19 1/3 innings, and Hollands and De Fratus riding scoreless streaks of 15 2/3 and 14 innings, respectively, the Phils’ bullpen is the best in baseball since June 3. Two more scoreless innings Wednesday night left it with an ERA of 1.25 since June 3.
“The experience was there coming into the season,” Papelbon said. “Now we’re getting the consistency. A big reason is because they’ve found their inner warrior. You have to believe it in your head and these guys are believing it.
“I’ve seen guys with great stuff who didn’t have the warrior attitude and they couldn’t make it. These guys are getting it and I love it. I can see it in their eyes. It’s a look that says: ‘Get me in there. I can get us out of this thing.’
“They want the ball. The phone rings, they want to hear their name and if it’s not their name, they’re ticked off. It wasn’t that way before.”
Confidence will do that for a reliever.
It can make you want the ball.
“We feel super-confident down there,” Diekman said. “Everyone has gotten experience. There’s talent and also a little bit of cockiness. It’s a good cockiness, like not being scared.”
Talent. Experience. Togetherness.
Warriors and wrestlers.
Whatever it takes. The Phillies bullpen is coming of age.