On Monday at Mayo Field, Rochester Honkers starting pitcher Dwayne Marshall gave up just two hits in five scoreless innings, then handed the ball to the bullpen.
Things fell apart from there, and the Honkers lost to Bismarck 6-3.
Such things happen, especially in the Northwoods League, where nearly every roster is short on reliable relievers.
But for the Honkers this year, such meltdowns have been nearly non-existent. In fact, Rochester’s bullpen — a.k.a “The Soul Pen” — is arguably the biggest reason for the team’s 12-9 record going into Tuesday’s game against Mankato.
Before Monday’s difficulties, the Honkers’ seven primary relievers had tossed 38 innings, yielding just 19 hits while piling up 50 strikeouts and posting a combined ERA of 1.18.
In other words, the Honkers’ bullpen has shortened a lot of games, and the best formula for beating the Honkers is to be ahead after six innings.
from down under
Perhaps the most feared of Rochester’s late-inning specialists is Keon Taylor, a California native who just completed his junior year at Georgetown College in Kentucky. While he took the loss Monday against the Larks, before that he’d appeared in five games, tossing seven scoreless innings.
Of the 26 outs he’s recorded so far this summer, 17 have been by strikeout.
“Guys in the bullpen right now just have a lot of confidence,” Taylor said before Monday’s game. “They have confidence in their stuff on the mound, and also in our defense. We’ve got some dudes behind us who have really been making plays.”
That’s very true. Rochester has the second-highest fielding percentage in the league and has committed the third-fewest errors.
But relatively few balls are put in play against Taylor, who has some serious “funk” in his motion. He’s 6-foot-4, works from the third-base side of the pitching rubber, and strides toward third before uncorking a sidearm/submarine delivery.
Hitters don’t get good swings against pitches that appear to be headed toward the ear hole in their helmet.
“I started using that delivery my sophomore year in junior college,” he said. “I used to throw from over the top, but I couldn’t find a rhythm that worked. When I dropped down, it felt a lot more natural. So I stuck with it, and the next thing you know, guys couldn’t see it.”
Then there’s Marty Tolson Jr., a right-hander who just finished his junior year at Maryland Eastern Shore. While he has a more conventional delivery than Taylor, his 15 strikeouts in just 11 innings of relief are due largely to a breaking ball that has caused more than a few batters to flinch on called third strikes.
Jared Morton, Rochester’s first-year pitching coach, likened that pitch to a boomerang. “It’s unbelievable,” Morton said. “I think it has more horizontal movement than vertical, and it just kind of spins up there. Hitters are waiting for it to drop, and it just never does. Plus, it makes his fastball look like it’s 90 miles per hour.”
Not surprisingly, some teams have stacked their lineups with left-handed hitters against Rochester — but unlike last year, the Honkers have several lefties in the “Soul Pen” who have been more than up to the challenge.
Evan Layne, a junior at Lake Erie College who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., has tossed 11 innings so far (five in relief) and has yielded just one run while piling up 13 strikeouts and a record of 3-0.
He’s normally a starting pitcher, and he attributes the bullpen’s success to chemistry, depth and good communication.
“Luckily, we have a lot of arms, so we don’t have to overuse anyone,” he said. “The coaches have done a really good job communicating with us. I know when I’m going to throw, so I can prepare and be ready.”
Layne said he has enjoyed getting a taste of life in the bullpen. “I like starting, but coming out of the bullpen, I get an adrenaline rush,” he said. “My mindset is just to go in and attack batters with everything I have for an inning or two and just leave it all out there. I don’t have to save anything.”
When Layne isn’t available, the Honkers can now hand the ball to another lefty, Anthony Rodriguez, who has given up just one hit and no runs in three appearances. Also off to strong starts coming out of the bullpen are Logan Nissen, Marc Bisogno and Casey Nimmo.
That’s a lot of reliable arms available for late-inning work, and Morton said that depth has been a difference-maker.
“Coach Walker went into this season knowing that we were going to need a bullpen to compete, so he went out and got arms from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Midwest, down South,” Morton said. “If you put 16 guys in the same uniform and tell them to get better, then they are going to compete with each other. And that’s been our biggest strength — seeing who can throw the most strikes.”
No-shows? Not this year
Morton also admits that there was some luck involved in creating this year’s pitching staff.
“Everything just kind of fell into place,” he said. “In the Northwoods League, you sign kids in February, and then you just have to sit back and hope that they show up. It just so happened that this year, everybody came, which is nice.”
With that depth, Morton and Walker have been able to get the most out of their pitchers without asking too much of them — especially given the fact that many pitchers have a limited number of innings that their college coaches will let them pitch this summer.
“It’s nice to be able to put together a pitching schedule before each series,” Morton said. “If the other team is going to be left-handed dominant at the plate the first night, then we can switch up our bullpen rotation accordingly.”
Of course, a bullpen’s best friend is a starting pitcher who completes six or seven innings, and of late Honkers’ starters have been doing that.
And then there’s the offense, which after a slow start has begun putting up a lot of runs. “Good run support let’s us use the relievers who don’t have strict innings limits,” Morton said. “Those guys come in and eat those innings, and they’ve been throwing quality innings, too. When we can do that, we keep everybody fresh.”
Still, the Honkers will likely lose some of their pitching depth before the playoffs begin in August — but Layne, for one, said he expects to stick around.
“I want to stay through the end of the summer and hopefully win a championship,” he said.