Game-saving relief pitchers no bit players for Dodgers, A's in Series

The modern relief pitcher hadn't yet been invented when David faced Goliath in the first World Series and was credited with a one-hitter! But one of the most remembered things about this year's Fall Classic between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A's, is bound to be the major role played by both bullpens.

From the time years ago, when fans would automatically ask, ``Who's pitching today?'' has come a new query, namely, ``Who's in the bullpen?''

If you are a Dodger fan, you want to know whom manager Tommy Lasorda has ready and rested for relief. If you are an Oakland fan, you are asking the same question of manager Tony La Russa.

The Dodgers' bullpen crew (with 49 saves overall) set a club record for effectiveness this year. Right-hander Jay Howell, obtained in an off-season trade from Oakland, led the Dodgers in saves, with 21.

Even though Howell was the losing pitcher in Game 3 of the Series, when he gave up a home run to Mark McGwire, Jay was back the next night to preserve a 4-3 lead in Game 4 that gave the A's a 3-games-to-1 lead in the best-of-seven showdown.

With one man out and the tying run on base in the last of the ninth inning, Howell struck out Jos'e Canseco, baseball's reigning home run king, with a wicked slider. Then he popped up the always-dangerous McGwire, who had beaten him the night before.

But Howell hasn't been alone. Terrific middle relief pitching by Tim Leary, Brian Holton, and Alejandro Pena, after starter Tim Belcher had been hard hit in the first two innings of the opener, kept the Dodgers within striking distance.

Leary and Pena also pitched well in Game 3 after starter John Tudor left early with an arm injury, although Oakland eventually won that game.

On the other side of the ledger, this year's Oakland relief staff not only set the standard for the American League, with 64 saves overall, but got 45 of those from Dennis Eckersley, whom some people think may have a shot at being named his league's most valuable player.

The sidearming right-hander has learned how to deliver hard pitches so that they look to the hitter only slightly larger than the buttons on a man's trench coat.

Even though Eckersley gave up the winning run to the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of the Series, he came back to pitch a scoreless ninth inning in Game 4. In the American League playoffs, Dennis had saved all four Oakland victories in a sweep of Boston.

Oakland also has four other top-quality relief pitchers in Rick Honeycutt (the winner in Game 3), plus Gene Nelson, Ed Plunk, and Curt Young. In fact, going into Game 5, this trio hadn't given up a run.

The World Series has underlined the importance of good middle relievers, specialists whose existence was never anticipated years ago, when the nine-inning pitcher was commonplace and ``Iron Man'' McGinnity once pitched two games in one day to earn his nickname.

Old-time pitchers benefited from being able to throw spitballs, and baseballs were used even after being nicked and scuffed, which affected their flight and visibility.

After spitters were banned and baseballs were given wings by home-run-conscious manufacturers, pitchers found that nine innings could be an eternity. The livelier ball really presented a nightmare. With the old ``dead'' ball, Frank (Home Run) Baker could lead the American League with less than a dozen homers. But when Babe Ruth and friends took aim on the livelier balls, starting pitchers were faced with the threat of more explosive run-scoring rallies.

Managers rushed to their rescue by going to bullpens, which were usually populated by over-the-hill veterans and one or two rookies, who hoped to become starters.

Relief specialists started to come into their own around 1927, when Wilcy Moore won 18 games in relief for the world champion New York Yankees.

Some of the early ones who went on to become household names included Johnny (Fireman) Murphy, Kirby Higbe, Joe Page, and Joe Black. Dick Radatz, Stu Miller, Elroy Face, and many other top names followed.

At first, how many games a relief pitcher saved were not included among baseball's major statistics. But now saves are to a relief pitcher negotiating a new contract as victories are to a starting pitcher.

If you do the job coming out of 'pen, you can earn a million dollars a year and spend your winters cruising the Caribbean!

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