Anyone who follows the Rays, or baseball in general, knows that their drastically improved bullpen was a major reason for their success last season. The three pitchers that got the most use last year were J.P. Howell, Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour. All three had good 2008 seasons, with Howell and Balfour having career years. If the Rays hope to repeat as division champions they're going to need those three to be nearly as effective this season, especially on the road against Boston. It just so happens they were all in action last night. Let's see how they did:
Somehow Dan Wheeler had a good 2008 season, even though his K/9 was one of the lowest of his career, while his BB/9 and HR/9 were some of the highest. Pitching in front of this defense seemed to be the key, as evidenced by his absurdly low BAA, WHIP and BABIP. There's no way he sustains those numbers, but they shouldn't jump too high either. Wheeler saw his first action of the season in yesterdays game, relieving Kazmir in the 7th inning and pitching great. Although he did face the bottom of the Red Sox order, Wheeler attacked the strike zone and looked good in retiring the Sox in order on 15 pitches.
I like Pat Burrell, and I adore Gabe Kapler, but my favorite acquisition of the offseason was J.P. Howell's lumberjack beard. How great did that look? Moving on. Howell, coming off his first season as a reliever in which he probably should have made the All-Star team, had mixed results in his first appearance of the season. He struck out Pedroia, but allowed back to back singles to Ortiz and Youkilis, though neither ball was hit particularly well. Benedict Baldelli(h/t Collette) was up next and went down on strikes rather easily. Howell was removed after an RBI double by Bay and a HBP on Lowell. Though his results on the night were mixed Howell's fastball was excellent. Sitting at 85mph the fastball was the perfect set up to his best pitch of the night; the 79mph changeup, which he threw four times, all for strikes.
There was talk in the spring by Grant Balfour about throwing more offspeed pitches. Apparently that was all a smoke screen. Balfour threw 15 pitches last night, and 14 of them were fastballs. He came into the game in the 8th inning with the bases loaded, two outs and the tying run at the plate, then proceeded to do Grant Balfour things. He started throwing a barrage of fastballs at Jed Lowrie before Lowrie finally decided he'd had enough and promptly struck out, earning what was surely thousands of STFD's from Rays fans. Balfour was unbelievable last season in leading all relievers in K/9(12.65), and in his first test of 2009 he came through in blazing, fiery orange and red glory.
On a night where Kazmir pitched very well it was refreshing to see the key members of the 2008 bullpen carry that success over to 2009.