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Long reliever role a key for Tampa Bay Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE — Right-hander Lance Cormier acknowledges a long reliever is far from a glamorous role, nor is it high profile.

But the Rays believe having one is a necessity — and in some cases, invaluable — pointing out how long relievers can save a bullpen by throwing several innings when starters outings are cut short.

They found that out the hard way last April, when Rays starting pitchers went five innings or less nine times in the first 27 games, with four of such outings in a five-day span. Throughout the season, the rotation had 47 outings of five innings or less, more than a quarter of their games.

So with the Rays down to their final roster decisions — their fifth starter and last bullpen spot — a long reliever will most likely be part of the equation. Whether the job goes to Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann or Cormier, they could play a big role.

"It's huge to have," said All-Star left-hander Scott Kazmir, who had 11 starts of five innings or less last season. "There are going to be days when starters just don't have it, and you can't waste your entire bullpen on a game that would probably be out of hand at a certain point.

"It's really important to have a long guy so it doesn't mess you up for the next three, four games after that. In a way, it's very, very valuable."

It's not always easy to get used to the role. They are usually versatile relievers, sometimes converted starters, who have to expect the unexpected. They could go a week without appearing, or pitch three times in a five or six-game stretch. Reliever Joe Nelson puts it simply, "you take one for the team."

Without a long reliever, others in the bullpen could get overburdened, or taken out of their roles, an impact that, as manager Joe Maddon emphasized, "takes days to get back in order."

So, while Cormier says "you always want to put up good numbers," it can be more about eating innings and "just don't let anybody else throw."

"You've got to be the guy able to step up in that role, and say, 'This is a personal day for me, I'm not going to look at the paper tomorrow and see my box score.' " Nelson said. "'But I'll get 17 guys out if that's what I have to do."

Last year, left-hander J.P. Howell started the season as the long reliever and got plenty of work. He threw 162/3 innings in April and 182/3 innings in May, with six three-inning stints in that time. Hammel, who started last season in the rotation, ended up being the long reliever later.

"I understand it's a hard job," Howell said. "It takes a guy who is always going to be ready, no matter what. Starters get their five days rest — as a long guy, you don't get the rest. You can go 10 days without pitching and all of a sudden you're in there for four of five days."

Cormier pointed out that long relievers do more than mop-up duty. They could enter when a starter gets hurt or has thrown a lot of pitches in a few innings (while not giving up too many runs), as Kazmir did at times last season, and keep a game from getting out of hand.

Nelson said long relievers can throw bullpen sessions on the side to stay fresh in lengthy periods without appearances, stretches that typically mean the rotation is having success.

"When (starting pitchers) get rolling, you might not get in there often," Cormier said. "But if a long guy isn't pitching a lot, it's a good thing."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com

Long reliever role a key for Tampa Bay Rays 04/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 10:22pm]
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