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Inside the revitalized Diamondbacks bullpen that powered Arizona's two-game sweep of Brewers

Jesse Friedman Avatar
October 4, 2023
Diamondbacks closer Paul Sewald celebrates a series sweep over the Milwaukee Brewers in the Wild Card Series.

MILWAUKEE — After seeing Kevin Ginkel throw 25 pitches in two dominant innings in the Diamondbacks’ Game 1 victory on Tuesday, manager Torey Lovullo knew there was a chance his stuff would not look the same in Game 2.

Indeed, it did not.

With Arizona leading 5-2 in the eighth, Ginkel faced four batters, and three of them singled. The Brewers had the bases loaded with one out.

So, Lovullo did something he would not normally do. He took the ball from Ginkel — his best, most consistent reliever throughout the 2023 season — despite the fact that he had thrown only 12 pitches.

“Stopping momentum and stopping these big runs,” Lovullo said after the game, “is the most important thing in playoff baseball, so you have to do some uncharacteristic things. That’s what I felt was the need. I trusted Andrew Saalfrank, and I just wanted to change the mojo.”

Saalfrank, a 26-year-old lefty drafted in the sixth round back in 2019, made his major league debut less than a month ago, but has quickly developed into the D-backs’ lefty reliever of choice in high-leverage situations.

This moment, with the tying runners on board in the eighth inning of a playoff game, was the most intense he had encountered all year.

“There’s things you can’t really control as much,” Saalfrank said after the game. “Nerves, adrenaline, like, you can do your best, but at some point you’re kind of capped out.

“It’s the same job … That’s what I kept telling myself. It’s no different than a regular season game. It’s just got a little bit more to it.”

Despite a missed call that turned what should have been an 0-2 count into a 1-1 count, Saalfrank ultimately induced a soft tapper back to the mound. He threw to catcher Jose Herrera, who stepped on home for the force out. Two outs, still bases loaded.

The next hitter, Wily Adames, swung at the first pitch he saw and grounded it to Ketel Marte, who stepped on second base for another forceout. Crisis averted, lead preserved. Saalfrank had done it again.

His performance was the cherry on top of a gutsy two games of pitching from Diamondbacks relievers. In 9 1/3 total innings, they did not allow a run.

That bullpen came up big in preserving a three-run lead late in Game 2, and it was even bigger in Game 1, when the Diamondbacks got only 2 2/3 innings from starting pitcher Brandon Pfaadt.

After Diamondbacks relievers posted a 2.16 team ERA in September, the second-best mark in the majors, their performance in Milwaukee simply continued a recent trend. This bullpen, suddenly, is pitching incredibly well.

The notion of the Diamondbacks being carried by their bullpen, not only into the postseason but through it, is unprecedented. Even a month ago, it would have seemed impossible.

As of Sep. 1, Diamondbacks relievers had amassed a 4.68 team ERA, which ranked 23rd in the majors. According to Fangraphs, they also had an 8.15 team ERA in high-leverage situations, the fourth-worst mark in the league.

Now, with recent additions such as Saalfrank and Ryan Thompson, as well as the trade deadline acquisition of Paul Sewald, the Diamondbacks are not just winning games in spite of their bullpen. In this Wild Card Series, they won because of it.

Diamondbacks relief pitcher Andrew Saalfrank pitches against the Houston Astros in the final series of the regular season. (Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY Sports)

Andrew Saalfrank, Arizona’s new high-leverage lefty

Called up from the minors on Sep. 4 — exactly one month prior to taking the ball in that pivotal moment in Game 2 — Saalfrank has been one of the Diamondbacks’ key contributors in the bullpen over the past month.

Including his postseason outing on Thursday, he has now pitched 11 major league innings and allowed zero earned runs.

Perhaps he has had more than his fair share of batted balls find gloves to date, but his 71 percent groundball rate in the regular season — plus two more grounders on Wednesday night — suggests that he is allowing the type of contact that often turns into outs. He has allowed only seven hits in his 11 innings pitched, all of them singles.

The fact that Saalfrank has become Arizona’s high-leverage lefthander so quickly is, of course, a product of how well he has performed. It is also, frankly, an indictment of the other left-handed relievers on the team.

Offseason free agent acquisition Andrew Chafin struggled in the first half and was dealt, coincendentally, to the Brewers at the trade deadline. Joe Mantiply, an All-Star last year, had an up-and-down regular season with a 4.62 ERA. Kyle Nelson had an excellent 2.60 ERA in the first half of the season, but a 6.75 mark thereafter with seven homers allowed in 21 1/3 innings.

When asked if he saw himself being used in a high-leverage role so early in his career, Saalfrank did not hesitate.

“Honestly, no,” he said. “I don’t think really anyone would have expected that. But, at the same time, I think it’s just a result of just hard work for the last few years.

“To be throwing in that situation, to be trusted in this situation, is awesome.”

Saalfrank, who pitched in front of 5,127 fans against the El Paso Chihuahuas as recently as 33 days ago, came through in one of the biggest moments of the season on Wednesday.

“There’s just so many emotions going on right now,” Saalfrank said after the game, “It’s not even being happy. It’s literally just joy and living the dream.”

“He’s pitched in some huge spots for us and just made pitches,” Diamondbacks third baseman Evan Longoria said of Saalfrank. “That situation that he came into tonight, I mean, for a rookie to come in and do what he did, like, it didn’t even look like he was breathing heavy. Those are the kind of guys that you need to emerge in the playoffs to take you to where you want to go.”

Diamondbacks relief pitcher Ryan Thompson pitches on Sept. 20. (Rob Schumacher/The Republic)

DFA’d by Rays, Ryan Thompson now thriving with Diamondbacks

When Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo heard that the team had signed a new relief pitcher, he wanted to know more.

“I was told we picked up a right-handed pitcher by the name of Ryan Thompson,” Lovullo recalls. “I got on the horn and started calling some people about usage, what kind of guy he was, and everybody that I talked to said he is going to fill up the strike zone and collect you some big outs.”

Designated for assignment by the Tampa Bay Rays on Aug. 16, Thompson signed a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks three days later and found his way to the majors by Aug. 27.

Fresh out of the minors, his first appearance with the Diamondbacks was a save situation. He worked a perfect 1-2-3 inning.

“I started to develop a lot of confidence in using him,” Lovullo said. “I think he senses that. He hasn’t let us down.”

The 31-year-old righty played a pivotal role in both of the Diamondbacks’ Wild Card Series wins. In Game 1, he got five outs, two of which came in a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fifth inning with some help from Evan Longoria’s glove. In Game 2, he worked a 1-2-3 seventh inning to preserve Arizona’s three-run lead.

While Thompson is now established as one of the D-backs’ high-leverage arms, manager Torey Lovullo has used him in a number of different situations, something Thompson has embraced from the start.

“The minute I came in here, they told me it doesn’t matter righty or lefty, it doesn’t matter fifth inning, sixth inning, seventh inning, eighth inning, ninth inning, in a save situation. Like, you’re our guy.

“That’s how you run an organization. You tell guys you believe in them and then you put them in situations that backs that up. It helps the player want to be their best and go out there and give everything they got.”

Thompson has been nothing short of spectacular for Arizona. Including the postseason, he has allowed just one run on seven hits in 15 2/3 innings of work.

Playing a significant role in that effectivness is the fact that Thompson has a lowered arm slot, giving opposing hitters a different look than that of any other D-backs reliever.

“As a hitter, I know what it’s like to face those funky guys who are deceptive,” Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker said. “It’s hard to get a read on them. You only get to face them once.”

“We have a lot of our bases covered on this team with lefties and righties and guys that do different things,” Thompson added. “I bring the arm angle element. We got Ginkel from way over the top, we got [Paul] Sewald at the low slot, fastball guy, we got a lot of different options out there.”

Diamondbacks relief pitcher Paul Sewald and catcher Jose Herrera celebrate Arizona’s two-game sweep of the Brewers. (Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports)

Paul Sewald, the closer the Diamondbacks desperately needed

When the Diamondbacks acquired closer Paul Sewald from the Seattle Mariners at the trade deadline, general manager Mike Hazen said that he was filling a need that he should have addressed prior to the start of the season. Looking back, he now wonders how his bullpen might have fared had Sewald been in Arizona from the jump.

In both games of the Wild Card Series in Milwaukee, as the Diamondacks lined up relievers to preserve their leads, there were no questions about who would pitch the ninth inning. It was going to be Sewald.

While it has not always looked pretty for Arizona’s new closer — of his 17 save opportunities since joining the D-backs, he still has yet to convert a 1-2-3- inning — but he has still managed to get the job done at an elite rate.

Sewald’s outing in Game 2 was indicative of the season he has had. He hit the first batter of the inning, Josh Donaldson. After retiring the next two hitters, Sewald gave up a loud double off the left-field fence to Christian Yelich. Suddenly, Milwaukee had the tying run at the plate. Sewald then struck out William Contreras to seal the deal.

Prior to Sewald’s arrival in Arizona, the team had cycled through a number of arms in save situations. Miguel Castro, Scott McGough and the aforementioned Chafin all saw opportunities in the role, but none had sustained success.

In Sewald, the Diamondbacks landed a closer whose track record spoke for itself. From the start of the 2022 season through the end of his Mariners tenure in 2023, Sewald went 41-for-49 in save opportunities, a success rate of 84 percent.

Including his saves in Game 1 and Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Brewers, Sewald has now converted 15 of 17 save opportunities since joining the Diamondbacks, a success rate of 88 percent.

For Hazen, the addition of Sewald was not just about suring up the ninth inning. It was about the innings that came before it, too.

“That was a major change and a shift for the guys,” Hazen said. “Not that they can’t handle that situation … We have a lot of, still [have] a lot of young guys that are pitching in those leverage roles and I think it benefits them, I do. Maybe I’m wrong on that. But I don’t think it’s a surprise that Paul has come here and our bullpen has pitched completely differently.

“Guys aren’t wondering who’s going out into the ninth inning. They’re now figuring out what they’re going to do in the seventh or the eighth.”

With Sewald securing the ninth, Ginkel locking down the eighth — his Game 2 performance notwithstanding — and both Thompson and Saalfrank available for other key moments, the Diamondbacks’ bullpen is the best it has looked in years. And they are winning on the game’s biggest stage because of it.

“I’ve talked about it with countless people,” Longoria said. “When you can have a bullpen that comes in in the sixth and shuts games down, it makes it so hard for the other team. These guys are that right now.”

Follow Jesse Friedman on X (formerly Twitter)

Top photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports

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