Tribe bullpen takes strides vs. Rays

Tribe bullpen takes strides vs. Rays

CLEVELAND -- The Indians have seemingly taken advantage of every opportunity the Rays have handed them over the past three days.

No area of the club, perhaps, has benefited more than the Tribe's beleaguered bullpen.

With Aaron Laffey and Cliff Lee racking up high pitch counts early in their starts and Matt Ginter coming in with a very short leash for his spot start Saturday, the Indians relievers have had plenty of opportunities to work out of a collective funk heading into the All-Star break. And for the most part, they've seized them.

Taking away Juan Rincon's four-run eighth inning Saturday, the Tribe's relievers have tossed nine scoreless innings over the past three games entering Sunday, allowing just five hits.

"As a whole, we've seen some guys come in ready to get after the first hitter," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "The thing about being a relief pitcher, you usually don't have the luxury of making a mistake or having any margin of error."

One of the more reliable arms out of the bullpen, but still somewhat of a disappointment this season, Rafael Perez has thrown four scoreless innings since a rough outing in Minnesota last Saturday. Manager Eric Wedge said, if anyone, Perez is his go-to guy for clutch situations.

But Wedge made it clear that there are no set roles in the Tribe's patchwork 'pen.

"I think everyone needs to back off on the roles, because it's going to take some time to figure out," Wedge said. "Perez is probably most suited for the seventh and eighth inning. I'm not going to just label anything."

Another pleasant surprise came Saturday, when Rafael Betancourt flashed his 2007 form in two near-perfect innings of relief. After a year in which he was one of the most dominant setup men in all of baseball, Betancourt holds a 6.00 ERA and has allowed at least a run in five of his past 11 appearances. Willis, however, saw something different Saturday.

"He looked more like the Raffy of old," Willis said. "He had a better fastball and better command of that fastball."

Even sparsely used Ed Mujica has seemed to remedy himself. Since he allowed five runs in a June 14 loss to San Diego, Mujica has not allowed a run in his past six appearances, limiting the opposition to just three hits with a better split-finger and fastball.

A disappointment, though, was Rincon's performance. After setting the first two hitters down on loud outs, Rincon let the next four Rays hitters get on base before he was pulled, walking off the field to a chorus of boos.

Once a dominant setup man with the Twins, Rincon seemed to lose his form over the past two seasons, but Willis and his staff saw something they could fix. And although the 29-year-old right-hander struggled in four appearances at Triple-A Buffalo, Willis said Rincon is a bona fide Major Leaguer and has a safe spot in Tribe's bullpen -- even after Saturday's performance.

"He doesn't have to prove anything," Willis said. "I've seen what he can do, but I think -- because he struggled a bit earlier in the season -- he's a bit impatient to try to get back. But I think he's making the right steps."

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