Any given night, members of the group that refers to itself as the Bullpen Mafia – a title that dates back a few seasons as an homage to the Cleveland Indians unit bearing the same nickname – can be called upon to pitch on short notice. Fortunately for the guys waiting to hear their number called, it rarely, if ever, works out that way because each pitcher has a role and a sense of when they might be called upon.
Isolated from their teammates for much of the game in the furthest corner of left field and the third-base line, the seven relief pitchers to see the field for Ohio State this season not only get the job done – they are a combined 9-4 with five saves and a 2.90 ERA – but have also formed their own unique community forged out of the demanding nature of their job.
“It’s a good dynamic with the guys,” said volunteer assistant coach Dan DeLucia, a former Buckeye hurler who serves as the bullpen coach. “They know their roles and know their parts on the team. They also know that it’s 100 percent focus when it’s time to go into the game. We have fun down there, but we track the game and talk baseball and talk hitters. It’s a loose group, but when it’s time to prepare, they’re ready.”
Sophomore Shea Murray has only pitched twice this season, but it’s his name that comes up most often (along with Yianni Pavlopoulos, who is taking a medical redshirt) when discussing the laid-back atmosphere that dominated the bullpen.
His teammates said they’ve come to expect something different out of him every day and that he brings the best jokes, but they also said that he deftly walks the line when it comes to knowing the right time to crack a joke. For Murray, a well-placed punch line or impression can keep any building pressure at a manageable level.
“It’s about trying to have a free and easy mind-set in the bullpen,” he said. “I think it’s a lot easier to play when you’re not all tensed up. If I can do a little bit to ease the tension in the bullpen, it can make us better as a staff.”
On a night when the starter might not have his best stuff, the first guy out of the pen could be Adam Niemeyer. DeLucia said he’s often used in long relief. In that Friday night game April 10 against UNLV, it was he who was summoned to replace starter Tanner Tully, who exited after five innings with the Buckeyes trailing 5-2.
Niemeyer, one of only a few relievers with more innings pitched than total appearances, gave the Buckeyes two scoreless frames to keep them in the ballgame. During that span, OSU scored a combined three runs in the bottom of the sixth and seventh innings to knot the game at 5.
His outing ended in the top of the eighth when he allowed a single from the leadoff hitter Austin Anderson. That situation opened the door for the player that most pointed to as the Godfather of the Bullpen Mafia, junior Jake Post. Selected to that role for what Murray described as “unmentionable reasons,” Post boasts an unflappable confidence that gives the OSU coaching staff faith in him to get the job done when danger comes knocking.
“Post is our go-to guy out of the bullpen when a game is tight,” DeLucia said. “When we had our individual meetings going into the season, he said I’m going to do whatever I need to do to help this team win. He’s a guy who wants the ball every time. We like that as a coaching staff, knowing that we can depend on him, and the rest of the guys feel the same way.”
That his outings come during crucial situations that are out of his control is one of the main differences between relievers and starters, Post said.
“Starters have their five-day or six-day routine or whatever. If you’re a bullpen guy, you’ve got to be ready to go every day,” he said. “You still have a routine and you still have a program you have to do every day, but it’s not quite the same. The mentality is different. Coming out of the pen, you could come in with bases loaded with one out and have to work your way out of it. As a starter, you start fresh every inning, so it’s just a different mind-set.”
Against the Rebels, Post retired the first batter he faced on a sacrifice bunt but walked the next to put runners on first and second. The misstep ended his night and sent the Ohio State coaches looking for a matchup advantage.
When it comes to the middle innings or later moments in close games, there are three players who are most often used on a limited, situational basis. Junior Michael Horejsei is the team’s lefty vs. lefty specialist (and also the sunflower seed supplier if you’re looking for BIGS Barbeque seeds). On the other end of the spectrum, freshmen Kyle Michalik and Seth Kinker are both righthanders who have low arm action that induces ground balls and can lead to double plays.
With lefthanded second baseman Payton Squier coming to the plate, the ball went to Horejsei. He needed just two pitches to get the job done, getting the second out of the inning on a fly ball to left field.
With two runners on and just four outs left to get, the team turned to the most decorated reliever in program history. Senior Trace Dempsey holds the program record for career saves with 30. He was a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten selection and third-team All-American in his sophomore year after notching 17 saves with a 1.02 ERA.
He had an up-and-down campaign in 2014 that ended with eight saves, but the coaching staff knows he’s an unbeatable option out there when he’s at his best.
“He was an all-American as a closer, and it’s hard for that to leave your mind,” DeLucia said. “As long as Trace stays within himself, he’s one of the best pitchers in the Big Ten. There’s a reason he was an All-American two years ago. Last year he tried to carry too much on his shoulders, but when he stays within himself he’s one of the best and he knows it.”
While some teams may use their closers exclusively in save situations, the Buckeyes have often turned to Dempsey during tied games in the eighth or ninth innings. For that reason, he spends the earlier innings preparing for a possible early entry.
“My role has pretty much been the same, either get us out of the eighth or throw the ninth,” Dempsey said. “I’ll watch how the game is going because even if we’re losing by one or two I know one swing could change it and I’m in the game. When you sit down you get tight, especially on cold nights, so I try to run around to stay loose. I try to do bands in the seventh and play catch in the eighth so that when I have to loosen up I’m ready.”
Although he said the final three outs are the toughest to get – a challenge he embraces – he needed just seven pitches to retire the last four UNLV batters. It was the icing on a flawless performance for the relievers, who allowed no runs in four innings and gave the offense enough chances to deliver a 6-5 walkoff win in the bottom of the ninth.
“We can’t take away runs, but we can keep the other team at that score,” Dempsey said. “We’re trying to give our offense a chance to come back and win the game.”
As it turns out, nobody delivers ruthlessly efficient performances in a tough line of work quite like the Bullpen Mafia.