Bullpen. It’s a singular word used to refer to the collective group of relievers. For the Mariners, it’s a singular word to describe the eight unique personalities and skill-sets that have combined to form a singular group that is one of the best in baseball.
The numbers are there. Through Sunday, the bullpen has the lowest earned-run average in all of baseball at 2.54. That’s the eighth-lowest bullpen ERA in major-league history and the second-lowest by an American League team since 1974.
That ERA certainly will set a club record — even after allowing four earned runs in 51/3 innings in the blowout loss Monday at Toronto — considering the next best bullpen ERA was 3.04 in 2001. The Mariners bullpen has a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.15, which is just behind the 2001 mark of 1.09.
The eight pitchers have been beyond durable — not one has gone on the disabled list. They’ve set an American League record and tied an MLB record with seven pitchers having at least 50 relief appearances, including four with more than 60.
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But it goes beyond numbers.
They are a team within the team. Hours before games they can be found chasing after Nerf footballs in pass patterns they use for conditioning and ammunition for good-natured insults.
But what looks like fun and games brings camaraderie and closeness.
In the clubhouse, their lockers are situated together, but more often than not at least four of them are congregated around one locker, talking, debating and teasing.
During the game, they are all seated in the bullpen, watching, preparing, scouting, discussing and chanting.
“We have little chants or songs that we do,” said Brandon Maurer. “Like when Kyle Seager comes up to the plate at home, we have a little song we all sing. We have a different one for Chris Taylor and some other guys and other situations. I guess we’re like a girls softball team like that.”
Meanwhile, bullpen coach Mike Rojas just watches with a smile.
“He probably thinks we’re idiots,” said Danny Farquhar.
Well, maybe not idiots.
“Sometimes you just shake your head,” Rojas said. “But I love it all. It’s unity. They’re a tight-knit group of guys that aren’t afraid of failure but are succeeding. They pick each other up.”
Manager Lloyd McClendon has called the bullpen “the rock” of the team and “the foundation” of its success. One thing is for certain: The Mariners wouldn’t be vying for a playoff spot without those eight.
It wasn’t completely anticipated after the struggles of last season. But in a game that demands consistency, the group of Maurer, Farquhar, Dominic Leone, Charlie Furbush, Yoervis Medina, Joe Beimel, Tom Wilhelmsen and Fernando Rodney is doing it better than any bullpen in Mariners history.
The newcomer, Brandon Maurer
Maurer’s talent and array of plus pitches made him a starting pitcher. Armed with a mid-90s fastball, curveball, slider and changeup, he had all the tools for success.
It just didn’t work.
Maurer never could find his stride as a starter, struggling to a 2-7 record and 6.93 ERA last season. This year, after making seven less-than-memorable starts, he was converted to a reliever. It has been a perfect fit.
“I think this just fits my personality,” he said.
“Coming late into that group, the hardest thing is just following suit,” he said. “I was walking into the best bullpen in the league.”
It also involves learning the idiosyncrasies.
“We have this chant we all do when we walk out,” Maurer said. “I didn’t know it and that first game, I was standing there and saying, ‘What the heck is going on? Well, this is new.’ ”
The rookie, Dominic Leone
Leone’s arrival came sooner than he even expected. The hard-throwing right-hander was assigned to Class AAA Tacoma out of spring training, but was quickly called up and never threw an inning for the Rainiers.
Leone has been outstanding in middle relief.
As a rookie, he also knows his place in the pecking order.
“You have to earn their respect and you have to earn everything when you are up here,” he said.
He also is the resident “vulture,” leading with the bullpen in wins with a 7-2 record.
“I’m starting to hear the comments,” he said.
Moments later he heard another one.
“Dude, you have more wins than me in the last two years and I was a starter,” Maurer yelled at him.
Leone smiled: “I’m a snake. But I will take them.”
The veteran, Charlie Furbush
It’s odd to think of him as a grizzled veteran, but Furbush has been pitching in the Mariners’ bullpen for longer than any reliever other than Wilhelmsen. Seattle acquired Furbush in the infamous Doug Fister trade during the 2011 season. He is the only remaining player the Mariners got from the Tigers.
After a brief dalliance as a starter, he has made 184 relief appearances with the Mariners. He’s been the Mariners’ lefty-on-lefty specialist the past three seasons. Lefties have hit .247 against him this season.
His funky delivery, featuring arms and legs going everywhere, is something that can’t be taught.
“It’s unique,” Rojas said.
But so is Furbush, who chooses to live in snowy Maine in the offseason and can drop into a spot-on Boston accent at a moment’s notice. He also shows off his oddly double jointed elbows and has his own weekly radio segment.
He’s goofy and yet trusted enough to be the team’s representative in the players’ union.
The quiet one, Yoervis Medina
When he’s not shadowing Felix Hernandez or Fernando Rodney around the clubhouse or working out with them pregame, Yoervis Medina is often sitting at his locker quietly taking in the nonsense of his fellow relievers.
“I understand everything,” he said through interpreter Fernando Alcala.
The young Venezuelan speaks minimal English, but understands more than people think. It’s the quiet ones who can be the most effective in the constant ribbing and teasing.
“Medina has a sneaky, good sense of humor,” Wilhelmsen said. “He’ll get you if you don’t expect it. I’d say he’s coming along quite nicely.”
Armed with a nasty sinking fastball, Medina was dominant early, but has struggled lately.
“I try to fit in,” Medina said. “In all the years I’ve been in the league and even in the minors, I’ve never had a bullpen like this in terms of camaraderie.”
The chatterbox, Danny Farquhar
You know the friend who is quick to start a conversation or eager to join a conversation and then usually ends up dominating the discussion? That’s Danny Farquhar.
“He never stops talking,” Beimel said.
Farquhar, occasionally referred to as “Lord Farquhar” by teammates, doesn’t dispute it.
“Absolutely,” he said. “They make fun of me for always talking and yet when anyone has a question, they come and ask me. It’s like they want to get me talking.”
That premise made Wilhelmsen’s eyes roll.
“We don’t have Internet in the bullpen, but we have Danny Farquhar and he can act like the Internet for most of the necessary questions we need answering,” Wilhelmsen said. “He’s like our own Wikipedia.”
Are his answers correct?
“About as often as Wikipedia,” Wilhelmsen said.
Even though Farquhar is only 5 feet 9, 170 pounds, he can throw his fastball mid- 90s. He also has a nasty cutter and curveball.
The bartender, Tom Wilhelmsen
Every group has a leader, either by choice or by default. Wilhelmsen’s ascension to leader of this motley crew came by sheer power of his personality and his 210 relief appearances as a Mariner. His fellow relievers all point to him.
“I think I have some very nice teammates,” Wilhelmsen said. “Maybe I’m a little more vocal. But I don’t know if there is a leader.”
Wilhelmsen, who tended bar while he was out of baseball before signing with the Mariners, is the one who comes up with the rituals, the in-game chants, cheers and songs.
“Tom is the wittiest guy I’ve ever met,” Farquhar said. “He comes up with all this stuff.”
He doesn’t lack for opinions on any subject.
“There might be a dozen good movies Tom actually likes,” Furbush said. “Otherwise he thinks every actor or actress is terrible. He went off about Kevin Costner, saying, ‘He does the same role every time. It’s awful. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched his movies and turned them off.’ ”
Wilhelmsen bounced back after an up-and-down 2013 season, when he started as the closer, lost the job and his confidence and ended up pitching in Class AAA. This year, he’s been the most versatile reliever.
“He’s been our most important reliever,” McClendon said.
The old man, Joe Beimel
Joe Beimel isn’t to the point where he’s yelling at little kids to get off his lawn, but he’s not ashamed of being the old man in a bullpen full of whippersnappers. And he’s not done pitching.
At 37, he’s bounced back from Tommy John surgery in 2012 and a three-season absence from the big leagues to make 53 appearances.
Lefties are hitting just .184 against him.
His bullpen teammates like to mock him about his age and his efforts to counteract it.
“About five times a day,” he said.
“He’s got every gadget ever made to make your body feel good, “ Farquhar said. “And I guess when you are that old, you need those things.”
Beimel drinks alkalinized-ionized water. He wears full body compression clothing under his suit on long flights. He has unique tools that he uses to stretch and keep his body aligned.
“I’m 37 and I’m still playing,” Beimel said. “They’re just young and they don’t understand it yet. They haven’t experienced it yet. When they get to be my age, they’ll be doing the same stuff. If they don’t, they won’t be playing anymore.”
The Fernando Rodney Experience
There is nothing quite like The Fernando Rodney Experience. But for his fellow relievers that concept isn’t about the roller-coaster rides of emotions and base runners allowed during his save situations.
He’s allowed a base runner in almost half of his 66 appearances.
No, their experience is all about embracing the odd and endearing character. They love his laid-back nature that seems to border on boredom.
“He’s never in a hurry for anything,” Leone said. “He moves at his own pace at all times. You see all these closers that are high-intensity guys and they’re in your face. He’s the opposite.”
Rodney usually saunters to the bullpen around the sixth or seventh inning. His presence is felt immediately.
He brings his unique sense of humor and offbeat observations.
“He’s hilarious,” Leone said. “You see him and you think he’s this serious guy, but he’s so funny and so laid back.”
Rodney set the Mariners’ franchise record with 46 saves. His fellow relievers have embraced his offset ball cap and his imaginary archery routine after he completes the save.
“I’m enjoying being with these guys,” he said. “They’ve made me feel comfortable. This is the best group I’ve been with. They have a lot of talent.”
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