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Rank 'em: Bullpen combos key for contenders

Gonzalez: Bullpen combos key for contenders

Surprise, surprise: Most of the best late-inning bullpen combos belong to baseball's best teams.

In today's era, when starters rarely finish games and bullpen slotting is crucial, having two lights-out relievers pitch the end of games has become almost a requirement for success.

It's why the Yankees turned in that direction after missing out on Cliff Lee this past offseason, shelling out $35 million to Rafael Soriano so he can pitch their eighth innings -- a plan that soon went in a different direction. It's why the salaries of middle relievers continue to grow. And it's a big reason why the Braves, with Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel at the back end, are bound for the postseason.

Knowing your club is a near lock to win once it leads after seven innings is a huge and often-overlooked comfort. That luxury has continued to gain importance over the years, and now there seem to be more identifiable 1-2 bullpen combos than ever.

With most of baseball's playoff picture seemingly settled -- and the only true race residing in the American League West, where the Angels are 2 1/2 games behind the Rangers -- here's a look at where the late-inning combos of the likely playoff-bound teams rank.

8. David Hernandez and J.J. Putz (D-backs):
A big part of the D-backs' success stems from how well general manager Kevin Towers' under-the-radar bullpen additions have worked out -- none better than Putz (closer) and Hernandez (primary setup man). Putz is 37-for-41 in save chances, and his 0.91 WHIP ranks third in the National League among those with at least 50 innings. Hernandez, still relatively new to pitching in a relief role, has posted a 3.41 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and a subpar 2.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Solid numbers, but there's some stiff competition here.

7. Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde (Tigers):
"Papa Grande" Valverde sports a 2.49 ERA and is a perfect 42-for-42 in saves opportunity. But don't fall in love with those numbers too much. He's still walking a ton of guys (4.7 per nine innings) and his WHIP (1.27) is on pace to be his highest since a brutal 2006 season in Arizona. Signed to a three-year, $16.5 million deal last offseason, Benoit struggled early on, but he sports a 1.74 ERA and 0.63 WHIP in the second half.

Slam the door
Record when leading after seven innings.
Team Record
Braves 61-4
Brewers 70-6
D-backs 65-4
Phillies 71-5
Rangers 70-8
Red Sox 73-3
Tigers 66-0
Yankees 79-6
6. Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford (Brewers):
Coincidental or not, the addition of Rodriguez as the bridge to Axford has been coupled with the meteoric rise of the Brewers, who are 36-16 in the second half. K-Rod, the longtime closer, has a 2.79 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP and is striking out 10.2 batters per nine innings since joining the Brew Crew. Axford, meanwhile, has been outstanding. In his first full year as a closer, the 28-year-old sports a 2.23 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP and is 41-for-43 in save opportunities. Axford has allowed just two earned runs in his past 21 1/3 innings.

5. Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz (Rangers):
The Rangers coupled last year's AL Rookie of the Year Award winner with one of baseball's best setup man at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, when they acquired Adams from the Padres to serve as a bridge to Feliz. Adams has performed as expected in Texas, posting a 1.65 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP in his first 17 appearances. And since the move, the previously scuffling Feliz has been better, with a 1.84 ERA since the start of August.

4. Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon (Red Sox):
Boston's rotation has been in flux pretty much all year, but with Bard and Papelbon thriving, the eighth and ninth inning have been rather steady in Beantown. Papelbon has bounced back from his worst season, posting a 2.75 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 1.6 walks per nine innings and 29 saves in 30 chances. Despite Wednesday's blemish against the Blue Jays, Bard has turned in a 2.76 ERA and a career-low 0.86 WHIP.

3. Antonio Bastardo and Ryan Madson (Phillies):
Perhaps it isn't the 1-2 punch the Phils planned to have at the beginning of the year, but Madson and Bastardo have been extremely effective for the team with baseball's best record. We'll start with Bastardo, the little-known left-hander who doesn't seem to get enough love outside of Philadelphia. In case you haven't noticed, he's been nearly unhittable, with a 1.66 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP. And that's not even the best part. This is: Bastardo's .114 opponents' batting average is on pace to be the lowest in baseball history for any pitcher with 50 or more innings in a season. Madson, meanwhile, has a 2.79 ERA, a 1.142 WHIP and is 28-for-30 in save chances.

2. David Robertson and Mariano Rivera (Yankees):
The Yanks looked to be in a bind when Soriano began the year with elbow woes and Joba Chamberlain needed season-ending Tommy John surgery. Enter Robertson, who had a fairly unimportant role in Joe Girardi's bullpen at the start of the year and has since been one of the most reliable setup men in baseball. Robertson, an All-Star in 2011, has a 1.23 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and an uncanny ability to pitch out of trouble. As for the ninth? Yeah, um, that's secured by the best closer in history. Rivera has shown few signs of slowing down, even at 41. Heading into Thursday, he has a 2.13 ERA, 39 saves and is on pace to finish with a WHIP under 1.00 for the fourth straight season.

1. Venters and Kimbrel (Braves):
But even a bullpen with Mo in the back end isn't superior to what the Braves have this year, with the young lefty Venters and the young righty Kimbrel at the end of games. Wednesday night's setback aside, the two have been lights out in the final two innings all year, with a combined 1.53 ERA heading into Thursday. Venters has a 1.49 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. Kimbrel has a 1.57 ERA, a rookie-record-setting 42 saves and is a lock for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. The best part for Braves fans is neither of them figure to go anywhere for a while.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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