Originally created 06/04/99

Braves bullpen standing tall



ATLANTA -- Tom Glavine picked up a magazine and sat down in a video room just behind the Turner Field dugout.

The magazine was about golf, not baseball, and the television was not on SportsCenter. Glavine isn't exactly following his headlines these days. So the Atlanta Braves left-hander actually seemed relieved -- no pun intended -- when asked why his bullpen looks so surprisingly good.

"Because the starters have been so brutal," Glavine said without flinching. "How's that for an answer?"

In an odd way, Glavine is right. Atlanta's bullpen has been good because it's had to be. With the unusual struggles of Cy Young winners Greg Maddux and Glavine and the lingering elbow trouble of John Smoltz, the bullpen's workload has come in greater gulps through the first two months of the season than in any of Atlanta's glory years this decade. It has responded with a 3.05 earned run average over 144 2/3 innings, placing Braves relievers third -- that's not a misprint -- in the major leagues. Atlanta's starters have a 4.02 ERA.

"Our bullpen was good last year. Real good," said manager Bobby Cox. "Nobody wants to believe it, or it's something easy for a lot of media people to write about. You blow one game and start talking about the bullpen, because there hasn't been much more to pick on through the years here, so let's pick on the bullpen. But the fact is our bullpen has been good.

"It's just names that nobody recognizes. We don't have the Aguileras or the Becks or the Hoffmans, so people don't associate in baseball with the Rockers and the Seanezs and the McGlinchys and the McMichaels that we had and the Alejandro Penas, the Juan Berenguers."

This year's bunch is handling introductions quite well, thank you: John Rocker, Rudy Seanez, Mike Remlinger, Kevin McGlinchy, Russ Springer and Justin Speier, all mules packing a punch. All unleash fastballs that reach at least 90 miles per hour, and Rocker and McGlinchy regularly top 95 mph. Almost all have above-average breaking balls or off-speed pitches.

"They've got talent," Glavine said. "The more they pitch the better they're going to be, but it's because they have a lot of talent. I don't think you're going to find a bullpen in baseball that has better arms than we do."

Rocker (2-2, 1.93 ERA) has been the anchor, claiming the closer's role from injured Kerry Ligtenberg as he won the Rolaids Relief Man Award for May. Rocker sprints onfield to the yelps of "I Wanna Rock" by Twisted Sister, and he shakes the rosin bag and tugs on his filthy cap and jerks his shoulders until his jersey hangs just so. Then he uncoils a goofy-looking fastball that just happens to rocket at 98 mph.

Seanez (3-0, 2.19 ERA) has been Rocker's opening act. He's good enough to be a headliner somewhere else but has found a comfortable niche and is loyal to the club that resurrected his career, now in its 16th jersey. Remlinger (2-1, 1.40) has played for 12 different teams throughout the minors and majors, an incredibly durable 33-year-old who was the Cincinnati Reds' opening-day starter last year.

Springer is on his sixth major league team and has recovered from offseason surgeries on his back and elbow to post a 3.38 earned run average, worst among the relievers after he gave up home runs in his last two outings. McGlinchy (2-2, 2.05 ERA) has been the biggest surprise, a 21-year-old who had pitched in only six games above the Class A level when the Braves converted him to a reliever in winter ball. An accurate hard-thrower, McGlinchy took so well to the new role that his major-league pension plan got an early start.

Speier was a late addition in spring training, but the Braves weren't able to keep him at Class AAA Richmond for long. He's susceptible to the long ball -- surrendering five -- but he also has a 3.18 ERA over 17 innings, pitching well enough that veteran John Hudek is working out kinks in Richmond while Speier dines on Atlanta's post-game spread.

Take away Hudek's 12 earned runs in 9 2/3 innings, and Atlanta's bullpen has bordered on unbeatable.

"I think we've got a good mix of guys down there. Everyone has great arms and everyone has great stuff. If you start with that, it's a great place to start from," Remlinger says. "We're coming together as one unit now. Every day, all of us want the ball. I think that's one of the biggest things -- always being ready to go, whether it's you they want or somebody else."