Papelbon likes what he sees out of his, um, wrestlers


Papelbon likes what he sees out of his, um, wrestlers

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.

MLB Playoffs: Indians reach 1st World Series since 1997

MLB Playoffs: Indians reach 1st World Series since 1997

TORONTO -- For the Cleveland Indians, the script was the same every game -- hope for the best from whoever they started, then count on Andrew Miller and the bullpen to close it out.

That plan seemed especially dicey in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series, with lightly used Ryan Merritt on the mound.

But out of nowhere, the rookie delivered.

Merritt coolly kept the Indians ahead until reinforcements arrived, and Cleveland earned its first trip to the World Series since 1997 by blanking the Toronto Blue Jays 3-0 Wednesday.

The 24-year-old lefty defied expectations, shutting down the powerful Blue Jays before exiting in the fifth inning. Thanks to a most unlikely pitching performance, a most unexpected team won the ALCS 4-1.

Cleveland, which has never hosted a World Series opener, will play Game 1 at Progressive Field on Tuesday night against the Chicago Cubs or Los Angeles Dodgers.

Manager Terry Francona's team will try to augment what's already been a scintillating year in Cleveland after LeBron James and the Cavaliers earned the city's first major pro sports championship since 1964.

The Indians' title drought dates to 1948. In 1997, they let a one-run lead get away in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 and lost to the Florida Marlins in the 11th.

"We always said if we could do it with this group it would be so special because this is as close to a family feel as you can get in a professional setting. So for that part of it, it is beyond feeling good," Francona said (see full recap).

Cubs' bats come alive to even series
LOS ANGELES -- Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and the rest of the Chicago Cubs' bats broke out in a big way.

Rizzo homered and ended a postseason slump with three RBIs, Russell's two-run drive highlighted a four-run fourth that stopped Chicago's 21-inning scoreless streak as the Cubs routed the Los Angeles Dodgers 10-2 on Wednesday to even the NL Championship Series at 2-all.

Kenta Maeda is set to pitch for the Dodgers in Game 5 on Thursday against Jon Lester. Before the game, manager Dave Roberts said he will not start Clayton Kershaw on short rest after the Los Angeles ace threw a bullpen session Wednesday.

Chicago ensured the NLCS will return to Wrigley Field for Game 6 Saturday.

To break out of his prolonged slump, Rizzo used teammate Matt Szczur's bat.

"I know Szczur's bat has a lot of hits in it," Rizzo said. "I've done it a few times this year, just switching up the bat, switching up the mindset."

Following consecutive shutout losses, the Cubs rapped out 13 hits on an 80-degree (26 degree Celcius) night with the warm Santa Ana winds fluttering the flags in center field.

Rizzo and Russell had three hits each. Chicago's 3-4-5 hitters -- a combined 2 for 32 in the first three games -- busted out. Every Cubs starter got at least one hit except Kris Bryant, who walked twice (see full recap).

For first time all season, Cubs not the World Series favorite

For first time all season, Cubs not the World Series favorite

For the first day, and perhaps the only day all season, the Chicago Cubs are not the World Series favorite.

Down 2-1 to the Dodgers in the NLCS with Game 4 Wednesday night in L.A., the Cubs' World Series odds are now 5/2, according to Bovada.

The Dodgers have the best odds of the final four teams at 7/4. The Indians, up 3-1 on the Blue Jays in the ALCS, are next at 2/1. Toronto is the longshot at 8/1.

Veteran John Lackey starts for the Cubs tonight against 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias. Jon Lester goes for the Cubs Thursday in Game 5; the Dodgers haven't yet named a starter.

In any event, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz and Joe Blanton are just two wins away from returning to the World Series for the first time since 2009. 

Utley is 3 for 24 with eight strikeouts this postseason. 

Ruiz contributed in the NLDS with a pinch-hit two-run homer in Game 3 and a pinch-hit, game-winning RBI single in Game 5.

Blanton, who had a great season as a reliever, has made six appearances in the playoffs and five have been clean. In the other, he allowed five runs in two-thirds of an inning as the Dodgers dropped Game 1 to the Cubs.

Phillies fans still keep tabs on former players from their Golden Era and applaud them when they return, but seeing Utley, Chooch and Kentucky Joe in the Fall Classic wearing Dodger blue might be too much for some to take.