Around this time last year, the Cleveland Indians were providing a preview of the American League postseason.
Manager Terry Francona was using newly acquired reliever Andrew Miller in all sorts of situations, and for more than one inning if necessary. It was an approach that eventually helped the Indians win the American League pennant, with Miller the MVP of the AL Championship Series.
The Indians are only the latest team to show how important a good bullpen can be in the playoffs, but not everybody has a tireless star like Miller. Here's a look at four other teams that are almost certain to be in the postseason this year - and how they might use their relievers.
Dodgers: Kenley Jansen might be the best reliever in all of baseball, and he threw 51 pitches in the Division Series finale last year at Washington, so manager Dave Roberts knows he can handle an extended outing. What's interesting this year is that Los Angeles appears to have a surplus of starters, so Roberts could convert at least one of them (Rich Hill? Kenta Maeda?) into a multi-inning option out of the bullpen.
Astros: Houston may be the team that most resembles the 2016 Indians. The Astros will lean on ace starter Dallas Keuchel, but there's a drop-off after him in the rotation, which means the Houston bullpen should be crucial. Ken Giles is the closer, but Chris Devenski is the X-factor. He went four innings in each of his first two appearances back in April, and he's gone at least two innings in 12 of his 49 relief outings in 2017.
Nationals: Washington's bullpen has been a mess this year, but that hasn't prevented the Nationals from taking a big lead in the NL East. The Nats added Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler in recent weeks to try to fix their biggest weakness, and so far those three have combined for a 1.32 ERA for Washington. Doolittle has converted all 11 of his save chances for his new team. If that keeps up, the late innings in October may be less stressful than expected.
Red Sox: Closer Craig Kimbrel has 99 strikeouts and only eight walks on the year, and Boston acquired Addison Reed at the deadline to bolster the bullpen. Those two are certainly capable of shutting teams down, but it's not clear how much manager John Farrell will push them. Kimbrel has thrown 1 1/3 innings or less in all but two of his appearances this year.
Some other developments from around baseball:
One of the most uplifting performances of the season took place last Monday, when Colorado's Chad Bettis pitched for the first time since cancer treatment, throwing seven scoreless innings against Atlanta. Bettis was diagnosed with testicular cancer in November.
He took the mound again Saturday night and turned in another quality start against Milwaukee.
The most spectacular play of this past week didn't belong to a major leaguer. Instead, it was young Jack Regenye who became a social media sensation Sunday after his catch in the Junior League Baseball World Series.
Regenye leaped over the short fence in center field to make a home run-robbing catch. After landing on the other side, he calmly popped up and showed the ball in his glove.
LINE OF THE WEEK
Manny Machado hit three home runs Friday night, including a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning that gave Baltimore a 9-7 win over the Los Angeles Angels. The 25-year-old Machado now has seven career grand slams.
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