No bull with these pens

May 20, 2003 11:31 PM

Is the pen mightier than the sword? If you want to pick up a save, it is.

Having great starting pitcher isn’t much good if the relief staff is terrible? The Red Sox are looking up at the Yankees because of a bullpen that has trouble getting one out in an inning, let alone three.

The Mets have had a dismal start despite one of the top payrolls in the game. A good pen can help stabilize a staff and jumpstart a winning streak, but did you notice what happened to the Mets in Colorado last week?

New York strung together a three-game win streak in a bid to get out of last place. Tom Glavine took a 7-0 lead into the seventh inning at Colorado, only to watch in horror as the bullpen collapsed in a stunning 9-8 loss. The Mets trotted out 22-year old Pat Strange, David Weathers, Jason Middlebrook (3 runs allowed, no outs) and Jaime Cerda, all to no avail.

A loss like that can not only stops win streaks, but damages the psyche of a team. The confidence of players is sapped, plus clubhouse tension and dissension rises. Confidence is such a key with relievers because they’re under a microscope.

A starting pitcher knows he’s going to go 6-or-7 innings each game. It’s natural to expect some bad pitches or a bad inning or two. A reliever is often asked to go one inning or even face one batter, meaning there’s little accepted margin of error. You either get the guy out or you "stink."

Bullpens are important because good teams don’t win every game, 10-3. Many games are 3-3 in the seventh, or go extra innings after the starting pitchers are long gone. Here are some teams that are converting their edge in relief pitching depth into victories.

Minnesota: The Twins had key injuries to the starting pitchers last season, but stayed afloat and won the AL Central behind a remarkable bullpen. The pen has been instrumental again during the Twins recent streak of 11 wins in 14 games. That streak included two one-run wins and two shutouts. The best bullpen in baseball includes Johann Santana (1.57 ERA), Juan Rincon (1.45), LaTroy Hawkins (1.62 ERA), JC Romero (3.50) and "Everyday" Eddie Guardado (1.84).

Oakland: With their starting pitching, this team doesn’t need a strong bullpen. Yet, the pen has improved, and that’s scary on a team that won 103 games a year ago. Lefty Ricardo Rincon and righty workhorse Chad Bradford provide good middle relief for new closer Keith Foulke. Acquiring Foulke from the White Sox has turned into a great move. Last year’s closer, Billy Koch, saved 44 games, but was often erratic and walked 46 batters in 93 IP. Foulke is a solid strikeout pitcher and has superb control (4 walks in 19 IP) to go along with 11 saves. With the addition of Foulke, the A’s look to top 100 wins again.

Atlanta: The Braves went wild in the offseason, revamping their famed pitching staff. Lost in the shuffle of all the new starting pitching were the changes made to the best bullpen in baseball. Veteran Roberto Hernandez, 38, has found a home with 10 holds in his first 20 IP. Trey Hodges and 22-year old Jung Bong set the table for John Smoltz, who has emerged as one of the greatest closers in history. Defense and pitching depth make Atlanta the team to beat in the NL East again!