The bullpen has often been a four-letter word for the Atlanta Braves. You could even go so far as to say the Braves might have another World Series title or two if they had a better bullpen through the years.
In the 1990s, they had names like Juan Berenguer and Alejandro Pena, while in the 2000s, names like Chris Reitsma and Dan Kolb gave us all nightmares.
Mark Wohlers and John Rocker were good for a few years, but both imploded. John Smoltz and last year’s closer Billy Wagner provided temporary relief for a position that always seemed to need a Band-Aid.
This season, the bullpen has been remarkable. The trio leading the way has become the best group in baseball, even drawing comparisons to some of the best bullpens of all-time.
Craig Kimbrel is the closer, while Jonny Venters handles the eighth inning and Eric O’Flaherty handles the seventh inning.
And usually, they are pretty automatic, or as they call it in the business … lights out.
Atlanta’s bullpen ERA is 2.96 for the season, just a smidge behind San Francisco for the best mark in the game. The Braves and Giants are also tied at the top with 43 saves.
Entering Saturday night’s game, Kimbrel had not allowed an earned run since June 11. That’s 29.2 innings of scoreless pitching, and he’s 20 for 20 in save opportunities during that span. He’s a rookie. Yes, a rookie, and he could possibly push 50 saves before the season is over.
Kimbrel’s fastball is fun to watch. It travels 60 feet, 6 inches at around 98 mph. It has produced unbelievable strikeout numbers: 138 strikeouts in 82.1 career innings.
Venters had two rough outings in late June, but that small stretch has been the only blemish in a terrific season. He hasn’t given up a run in July or August, and his career strikeout-to-inning pitched ratio is also outstanding (172 strikeouts in 154.2 innings).
O’Flaherty allowed two inherited base runners to score Friday night, and he has allowed three runs this month. But before that, he didn’t give up a run for two months.
The big three relievers have a combined ERA of 1.37. Atlanta’s top two relievers in 2005, Reitsma and Kolb, had a combined ERA of 4.81.
The great thing about this success is the bullpen was one of the questions going into this season. Wagner had a great season last year, but he was a veteran who decided to retire instead of coming back. And the Braves were turning over the closer’s job to a 23-year-old in Kimbrel.
Others weren’t sure if Venters could match his outstanding rookie season from a year ago. And even manager Fredi Gonzalez started the season saying Kimbrel and Venters were going to share the closer’s duties.
Instead, they have become the talk of baseball. I heard a scout in the press box at Turner Field a couple of weeks ago say, “If you don’t get to this team by the sixth inning, it’s over.”
And that’s what Gonzalez and the Braves are hoping for. He has used the big three too much (Venters leads baseball in appearances, and the other two are in the top seven), but it hasn’t been a problem yet. They are effective almost every time out there, and it’s making the now-shaky rotation look a bit better knowing it is going to get help late in the game.
Back in 2002, the Braves had the best bullpen in the game. Smoltz saved 55 games that year, and he had three setup men (Chris Hammond, Mike Remlinger and Darren Holmes) who had a combined ERA of 1.54.
Those were all veterans. These three are kids. Kimbrel is the baby, while Venters and O’Flaherty are both 26.
In 1990, the Cincinnati Reds had three great relievers labeled “The Nasty Boys.” Randy Myers, Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble had a combined ERA of 2.28. They were a main reason the Reds won the World Series that year, and they were close to untouchable in the late innings.
That’s what people are whispering about with the Braves. If they do anything special this year, it could well be because of their Nasty Boys in the bullpen. And how ironic that would be considering the troubles the franchise has had with that position during the past 20 years.
Listen to The Bill Shanks Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com.