Success of the bullpen may determine Padres’ fate in 2022

Credit: USA Today Sports

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Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

For much of this season, the San Diego Padres have been on a rollercoaster of a run, achieving the highest highs and sinking to the lowest lows. In last Sunday’s 15-7 loss against the lowly Kansas City Royals, Bob Melvin said after the game that he hoped the game was “rock bottom.” Fast forward six days and Melvin’s hope may be coming to fruition.

Since that game, one in which starter Sean Manaea and reliever Josh Hader combined to give up 12 of the team’s 15 runs (all earned), the Padres have gone 4-0 after sweeping the divisional rival Giants in San Francisco and dominating a series-opening win over the MLB-best Dodgers.

It’s important to note how the Padres got to those wins, as well. On Monday and Tuesday, the Padres opted to use newly minted “interim” closer Nick Martinez in back-to-back save situations following Hader’s demotion. Martinez collected a combined seven outs to record the two saves successfully, lowering his ERA as a reliever to 1.76 in 24 games (Martinez owns a 4.30 ERA in 10 starts this year, all of which coming in the first half of the season).

In a season that’s seen a flurry of moves from Padres GM and President of Baseball Operations AJ Preller, his shrewd signing of Martinez this past offseason may qualify as one of his best. Martinez has converted all eight of his save chances, including ones of three, four, six, nine, and 11 out variety. He’s been an undisputed bullpen ace in the second half of the season and has buoyed a team with aspirations of a deep postseason run.

To make that run, though, the team will have to hope another bullpen ace can regain his past form. To say that Hader, a four-time all-star, has struggled since joining the Padres in early August would be an understatement. To date, he owns a 19.06 ERA in 5 2/3 innings with the team.

Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

However, the Padres opted to give Hader another chance to reclaim his former role by giving him the 9th inning of a one-run game on Wednesday in San Francisco. Melvin and pitching coach Ruben Niebla have stressed that continued appearances would be the best way to help Hader escape the most difficult stretch of his career.

Though he has struggled mightily against the Giants this season, Hader converted his first save with the Padres in a mostly routine scoreless inning. It’s unknown if Hader has officially been handed back the keys to the closer’s role. For what it’s worth, in the Padres 7-1 win over Los Angeles on Friday night, Martinez began to warm up but was not needed after Nabil Crismatt briefly found himself in a jam in the ninth inning.

As a group, the Padres bullpen will need more of these similar successes to convert their playoff aspirations into reality. This season, they only rank 19th in bullpen ERA at 3.74. However, they’ve improved of late, pitching to a 3.06 combined ERA since August 1 (6th in MLB in that span).

What’s more, Padres relievers rank 27th in innings pitched this season, a testament to the team’s durable starting pitching throughout the season. Unlike 2021, it appears that Padres relievers won’t be overly taxed as the season enters its final month.

It’ll be paramount for the Padres to continue to receive positive returns from their relief corps. With an offense that has started to show its might on a nightly basis and a starting rotation that keeps humming along (Padres starters rank 7th in WAR this season), the San Diego bullpen could be a determining factor in how deep the team plays into October.

Adrian Morejon closed out August, throwing 15 innings and allowing only one earned run. It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine Morejon turning into a multi-inning weapon in October, similar to how the defending World Series champion Braves deployed Tyler Matzek to douse fires and shut down rallies.

Similarly, Steven Wilson and Tim Hill are both working on double-digit scoreless inning streaks (Wilson hasn’t allowed a run in his last 12 innings, Hill his last 15 2/3). Crismatt continues to rely on a dancing changeup and inducing soft contact, pitching to a 2.75 ERA while adding 0.5 WAR. Pierce Johnson recently struck out the side to collect a save in his rehab appearance at El Paso, and a return to the Major League bullpen seems imminent.

However, lefty Drew Pomeranz has been shut down since August 19th after feeling discomfort in his left arm. Pomeranz is attempting to make a return from flexor tendon surgery in late 2021. When healthy, Pomeranz has been one of the most effective left-handed relievers in the league. However, he’s struggled to stay on the field after multiple injuries have cost him parts of 2021 and all of the 2022 season thus far.

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Though recent returns have been encouraging, the Padres have a difficult stretch ahead. After finishing their series against Los Angeles, they’ll travel home to face a Diamondbacks team that’s 7-1 in their past eight games before again facing the Dodgers.

The Padres currently occupy the National League’s second wild card by 1/2 game over Philadelphia and are four games clear of chasing Milwaukee. However, the next week of games will go a long way in determining the final playoff picture. The bullpen will play no small role in deciding San Diego’s success.

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