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Unheralded Tribe 'pen stifles Yanks

Unheralded Tribe 'pen stifles Yanks

NEW YORK -- Take a close look at the Indians' bullpen.

There's one guy, Jensen Lewis, who hadn't played a lick above Double-A before this season. There's another, Rafael Perez, who had a total of 12 big league innings to his credit entering this spring, and a third, Aaron Fultz, who is pitching for his fifth team in six years. And the glue, the guy charged with holding this whole operation together, is a 36-year-old closer who blew eight saves and had an ERA above 5.00.

Combined, they couldn't have been better.

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The Indians' bullpen didn't break -- didn't even bend, really -- against the Yankees in the American League Division Series, holding the league's most productive offense in check and springing the Tribe to a level of success it hasn't seen this decade.

Try making sense of that.

It begins with Joe Borowski, that aging closer who doubles as a magnet for criticism. Turns out closers don't need blazing heat to finish the job, as he proved by retiring the heart of the Yankees' lineup in Game 4 to propel the Indians to the ALCS. Sure, he served up a home run, and sure, plenty of his other outings weren't pretty. But it's hard to save 45 games by mistake.

"Everybody, all they see is what they see on paper," Borowski said. "If you're not following all year, you don't know what goes on. As long as the guys behind me and the coaching staff have my back, that's all I care about."

And all those guys care about are results. Borowski provided plenty, and so, too, did the rest of the bullpen. No Cleveland reliever allowed an earned run until Monday's game, and by the time they did, it didn't much matter. For the series, the bullpen posted a 1.35 ERA against an offense that averaged more than quadruple that production in the regular season.

And the relief corps did it, of course, without anybody noticing. The names Borowski and Fultz and Lewis might be grabbing some extra attention in Cleveland, but elsewhere, they remain lodged in anonymity.

Take Borowski, for example. He ranked second in the Majors in saves, yet took constant criticism for being a "shaky" closer. And he was shaky -- compared to the rest of his bullpen mates.

Borowski's setup man, Rafael Betancourt, walked nine men all year. He also struck out 80, posted a 1.47 ERA and tossed two scoreless innings against the Yankees in the playoffs.

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Cleveland's rookie sensation, Perez, came out of nowhere to string together a 1.78 ERA, then pitch two critical innings in Game 2 of the ALDS to earn the win. He finally allowed a postseason run on Monday, in his sixth inning in the series.

Then there's Lewis, who burst onto the scene in July to post a 2.15 ERA at the age of 23. He struck out four batters in two perfect Division Series innings.

Those three were so good that manager Eric Wedge called on Fultz -- who had a 2.92 regular-season ERA -- just once all series. And he didn't ever need Tom Mastny, who was fourth on the team with seven wins, one more than starter Jake Westbrook.

So now, with the Indians just four wins away from the World Series, that group is bound to find some attention.

Or maybe not.

"They've done it all year," Borowski said. "Without them, we aren't where we are."

The bullpen gives Cleveland a dimension most teams just don't have. When C.C. Sabathia lasted only five innings in Game 1, it didn't matter. When Westbrook and Paul Byrd did the same in Games 3 and 4, Wedge wasn't worried. And when Game 2 headed to extra innings and a battle of the bullpens, the Indians had a clear advantage.

Betancourt says much of the credit goes to Wedge, who kept his relievers in defined roles as often as he could. Sometimes that's not possible -- Betancourt thought he would pitch the seventh inning Monday, but instead wound up with the eighth. And that's where the talent takes over.

"We have great arms in the bullpen," Betancourt said. "We needed everybody there. It's great to have guys like that because when they come in the game, you know they're going to do the job."

They're not perfect, but in the first phase of October, they were awfully close. So it's easy to see why Borowski had confidence in Game 4, even though his last trip to Yankee Stadium ended only after he had served up six runs.

"I wouldn't be human if that didn't go through my mind," Borowski said. "But you've got a job to do. You can't be worried about what happened in the past."

How fitting. Because now, Borowski and the Indians have their eyes squarely on the future.

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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