DETROIT -- Particularly with early season injuries to closer Kerry Wood and Anthony Reyes, most outside observers considered the Cleveland bullpen to be a bit of a question mark heading into the season.
So far, so good.
The Tribe's bullpen has kept opposing hitters to a .093 batting average against this season, giving up four runs and five hits in 18 innings (a 2.00 ERA). The performance and depth of the 'pen will be heavily relied upon this year, particularly with young starters Justin Masterson, David Huff and Mitch Talbot in the rotation, and Jake Westbrook coming off a long-term injury.
"We broke up Spring Training confident that we could make our bullpen a strength," said reliever Jensen Lewis. "We need to cut down on our walks a bit, but our job is to leave any runners that are on base when we come in the game out there."
The bullpen's performance is markedly better from the first five games in 2009. Last year, Cleveland allowed 16 earned runs over 21.2 innings through its first five games (a 6.65 ERA).
Cleveland manager Manny Acta would like to see his bullpen get more strikeouts, but he acknowledges that Tribe relievers have made some big pitches with runners in scoring position to limit the opposition's offensive damage.
"We need to throw more strikes. But I like how we have been getting outs with guys on base," Acta said.
With just seven pitchers in most Major League bullpens, Acta feels comfortable that he has some relievers like Joe Smith, who don't have to rely on righty vs. righty and lefty vs. lefty matchups.
"When [Smith] was with the New York Mets, he got everyone out," Acta said. "There are times up here when you need to leave guys in there when you don't have ideal [pitching] matchups."
Lewis said he and his bullpen mates are confident in their individual roles, and he believes that the team's relievers have a significant amount of collective talent. That is especially true because most of Cleveland's relievers are in their 20s.
"Whenever the phone rings [in the bullpen] we expect and want our name to be called," Lewis said. "Every guy wants the ball."