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Tribe's 'pen solid, yet unpredictable

Tribe's 'pen solid, yet unpredictable

CLEVELAND -- Joe Borowski is the master of the unexpected.

His outings teeter between dominant and disastrous, usually falling toward the former despite the scare of the latter. The fact that he saved an American League-high 45 games this season with an ERA of 5.07 -- the highest ERA by a saves leader in Major League history -- tells you all you need to know about his tactics.

Borowski, then, is the physical embodiment of the spirit of big league bullpens.

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"The hardest thing to predict on a Major League team is your bullpen," Borowski said. "It's so hard to predict what's going to happen, especially if you have injuries or other things where guys have to do things they're not accustomed to. It's hard to say, 'We're going to have a great bullpen.'"

The Indians didn't come into the 2007 season saying they'd have a great bullpen. They never imagined they'd have the AL's saves leader and two of its most dominant setup men in Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez. They were still too traumatized by what happened in '06 to be that cocky.

The Tribe saved a Major League-low 24 games in '06 with a bullpen that was, much to its own chagrin, never boring.

When the offseason free-agent market opened, general manager Mark Shapiro went straight to the relief department. It was a thin market, at best, and he did his best to fill his needs within a reasonable budget by signing veterans Borowski, Keith Foulke, Roberto Hernandez and left-hander Aaron Fultz to one-year deals.

Borowski and Foulke were to compete for the closing duties, with the runner-up serving as the primary setup man. Hernandez, Fultz and the already in-house Betancourt were to work the seventh inning. Jason Davis and Fernando Cabrera, out of Minor League options, were to be the only other holdovers from '06, filling out middle relief.

And right about then is when the unpredictability set in.

A day before pitchers and catchers were to report to Spring Training camp, Foulke called Shapiro with the shocking announcement that he had decided to retire. Scramble mode began. Now, Borowski was the de facto closer, and everybody else moved up an inning in responsibility before the first pitch of the spring had even been thrown.

"I think there was a sense that, 'OK, this has simplified things a little bit,'" pitching coach Carl Willis recalled. "'We know who we have and what the roles are going to be.' At the same time, though, you're always looking at how much depth you have, and you know that's one less quality pitcher that you feel you can count on."

As the season progressed, the Indians learned that Hernandez, Davis and Cabrera simply could not be counted on. All three were long gone by August. And Fultz, while effective overall, never put together a sustained stretch of dominant outings. Tom Mastny, the last man added to the 'pen as a result of Foulke's retirement, found himself in a similar boat.

The keys to the 'pen in the season's first half, then, became Betancourt -- who, for the first time since his big league debut with the Indians in 2003 -- found a training routine that kept his arm and his body healthy, and Borowski.

Betancourt owned the eighth inning. He had a 1.13 ERA in 36 appearances before the All-Star break. And Borowski, save for two memorable blowups in New York on April 19 and in Oakland on May 13, was equally effective in the ninth, saving 25 of his first 27 opportunities.

But as the Indians looked toward the second half and, specifically, the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, they knew they needed more arms in the back end to ease some of the load on Betancourt and Borowski, both of whom have extensive injury histories.

Enter Perez. Since his arrival to the club from Triple-A Buffalo in May, he had pitched well. But in the second half, the lanky left-hander picked up his game considerably. He had a 1.80 ERA in nine July appearances, solidifying his role as Betancourt's eighth-inning assistant. He went on to log a 1.78 ERA in 44 games for the season.

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And when the Indians were unable to land another veteran arm to further shore up the back end in the trade market, right-hander Jensen Lewis, who began the year at Double-A Akron, began to step into a more prominent role. He went 1-1 with a 2.15 ERA in 26 games after a July 13 callup to the bigs.

"We put a huge emphasis on making sure these guys know their proper roles, so that they can achieve success and confidence," Willis said. "It's easier for those guys to prepare when they know what their role is."

Life in the 'pen is also a heck of a lot easier when your starting staff is logging more innings than any other in baseball. That was the case with the Indians' starters, who lasted a Major League-leading 1,021 1/3 innings this season, going at least five innings in 88.3 percent of their outings.

"When your starters are getting you into the sixth and seventh innings and you only need three to six outs to get to your closer," Willis said, "that's huge."

When the Indians get to their closer, hearts beat a little faster and antacids are eaten like M&M's. Borowski, simply put, knows how to keep his outings interesting.

As the Indians enter the glare of postseason play, they can only hope the two saves Borowski blew in two opportunities last week in Seattle are no indication of what's to come. They'd prefer to see something more along the lines of the two games he saved in Kansas City over the weekend.

Of course, as Borowski attests and the Indians have proven this season, predicting what's to come is impossible. That's just the nature of the bullpen beast.

"You just can't tell," Borowski said.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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